Improved Ways to Prevent the Desert Locust in Mauritania and the Sahel

January 7, 2010

  • IDA-funded project reduces threat of desert locust in Africa’s Sahel region.
  • The desert locust poses a significant risk to agricultural production and food security in the region.
  • Several countries - Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Senegal, Burkina and Gambia – avert desert locust infestation.

NOUAKCHOTT, January 7, 2010—It is early December 2009 and team members at the National Center for Locust Control are clapping their hands in delight. They have been able to control at a very early stage a major locust outbreak that could have affected food security in Africa’s Sahel region and the livelihood of its vulnerable communities.

“After years of hard work, the CNLA has finally reached the level of preparedness needed to successfully control locust emergencies and prevent the situation from worsening,” said Amadou Oumar Ba, the World Bank’s task team leader on the Africa Emergency Locust Project in Mauritania.

The National Center for Locust Control, or CNLA, has been working for years under difficult conditions to find ways to prevent the environmental degradation associated with the desert locust and to devise an early warning plan to protect crops from devastation.

On this day, they have demonstrated that preventive control is the most efficient way to control a pest that has devastated crops in the Saharo-Sahel and Maghreb region for centuries.

The Containment Strategy

The desert locust poses an ongoing threat to agricultural production in many countries around the world. Traveling in swarms of several thousand, the pests can destroy hundreds of acres of land within hours. In 2004, swarms of locusts destroyed an estimated 65,000 km of crop land in nine Sahelian and Maghreb countries, among them Mauritania, at a cost of some 200 million Euros.

“These insects are amazingly versatile,” says Dr. Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Babah, CNLA Director and National Coordinator of the Africa Emergency Locust Program (AELP), a program funded by the World Bank and other donors. “[T]hey are solitary and it is sometimes difficult to detect them because they blend in with their environment, waiting for the right time to gather and launch their attack.”

Ould Babah and the CNLA team realized early on that the widespread spraying of large amounts of pesticides once the insects had already reached plague level was not the best way to alleviate the threat. In addition to having little effect on the insect, the chemicals posed a serious environmental and human health threat. Instead, CNLA devised a preventive control and early warning strategy which involved spraying small groups of locusts in minimal quantities before they are able to gather and spread to agriculture areas where they can cause damage to subsistence and cash crops.

Following heavy rains during the summer of 2009, the team prepared an advanced contingency plan aimed at reducing the numbers of locusts by stopping the insects from breeding in large numbers. They implemented phase 1 of the plan in July at the beginning of the first rains. Five exploration teams were dispatched to the areas of Hodhs, Assaba, West Tagant, and North Braknal outside of the capital city of Nouakchott, where they carried out intensive surveillance.

“During the course of their work, the teams realized that solitary desert locusts, dispersed over very vast areas posed a significant threat if they started to concentrate and form small swarms,” said Ould Babah. This was due largely to the favorable rains, moisture and vegetation.

In order to avoid swarms gathering and dispersing over large areas, CNLA launched phase 2 in October, and deployed 25 teams, who destroyed the initial populations by spraying small amounts of pesticide. By November, the infestation was contained with only 13,000 hectares of land having been sprayed.

“During the whole process, neighboring countries such as Morocco and Mali were in standby mode, ready to provide backup assistance under the coordination of the CLCPRO, the regional commission responsible for locust control in the Sahel and the Maghreb,” said Denis Jordy, Task leader of the World Bank regional project. “Despite the difficult security conditions, preventive control activities were also successfully carried out in Niger where similar swarms where identified.”

Avoiding the Agricultural Devastation of 2004

“Without this plan and an efficient preventive control and early warning system, we feared the worst,” said Amadou Diallo, head of CNLA’s intervention unit.

According to Diallo, had Mauritania been faced with the return of massive numbers of mature locust swarms at the start of its most recent rainy season—a return that could have led to a significant invasion— the country would have suffered considerable damage.

“We would have been forced to deploy massive equipment and financial resources and, later on, to deal with the migration of swarms of locusts to the countries north of Mauritania (Morocco and Algeria),” Diallo said. Surveillance activities are still ongoing in preparation of the forthcoming rainy season.

Over the years, efforts to combat the desert locust have been strengthened in Mauritania due to CNLA’s vigilance, preventive work, pro-active approach, and effective crisis communication. The team’s work is funded through the Africa Emergency Locust Program (AELP), a project supported by the World Bank through a US$60 million loan for seven Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Senegal, Burkina and Gambia).

The project which is scheduled to close in June 2010 has achieved significant impact, and reduced the vulnerability of the concerned countries to present and future locust infestations.