Swarms of locusts encouraged by early rains are breeding in the north of Mali and Niger, bringing a second generation of insects that could increase 250 fold by the end of this summer and put the livelihoods of up to 50 million people in the region at risk.
The new generation is expected to spread from rebel-held northern regions of the two West African states, where pest control is difficult, to neighbouring countries.
The locusts migrated to Mali and Niger in June from Algeria and Libya, and rains that began in the region in May, almost two months earlier than usual, are helping spawn a fresh lot of desert locusts whose numbers are expected to significantly increase by October.
"The worst case scenario would be that this summer there will be two generations of breeding, resulting in large numbers of locusts, including swarms that would be present in northern Niger and northern Mali. By October, they will be ready to move out of those countries into neighbouring countries." said Keith Cressman, a senior locust forecasting officer with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
"That timing will coincide with the harvest. There are up to 50 million people in the region that could be affected," Cressman told IRIN.
More than 18 million people are facing severe food shortages across the Sahel region, including 3.5 million in Mali and more than three million others in Niger.
Mali's and Niger's neighbours are setting up teams to counter the eventual spread of the insects. There are discussions within the United Nations on creating a humanitarian corridor in northern Mali, which has been overrun by Islamist militia since a coup in Bamako in March, to help those affected by the food shortages and allow locust control.
In addition to Mali and Niger, Chad, although to a lesser extent, face the most serious desert locust threat in the region since the last emergency in 2003-2005 which cost half a billion dollars to control.
During that invasion, swarms of up to 20km long and 5km wide devastated pastures, crops and vegetation across the Sahel from Dakar, the capital of Senegal on the Atlantic coast, to Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, half a continent away.
Despite preparations, insecurity remains a huge obstacle. The Algeria-Libya border is still insecure, control is difficult in northern Niger and impossible in northern Mali which is controlled by groups of heavily armed fighters, some of whom fled southwards after last year's fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who they fought for.
Normally there is only one generation of locust breeding, but the early rains this time altered the pattern, said Cressman. A significant increase in locust populations would further devastate the millions of people facing hunger in the Sahel due to a harsh drought and high food costs.
Issa Sissoko, a locust control project coordinator in Mali, said clouds of desert locusts of about 800 metres wide and 10 kilometres have been spotted in the northern region of Kidal.
"Unfortunately, given the situation in the area - the threat by Islamists, we cannot venture there at the moment, unless we negotiate with those occupying the region."
Mali's Agriculture Minister Léo Sidibé said the government was considering undertaking a general preventive pest control across the country, including the insurgent-controlled zones as a first option. An alternative strategy is to control the insects in areas bordering the insecure north from Kayes town in the west to Koro in the east.
"In any case we need to take measures to stop the locusts from destroying the agricultural regions," Sidibé told IRIN.
The voracious locusts often fly with the wind at speeds of between 16km to'km per hour and can cover distances of up to 150km per day. They can devour hectares of vegetation in a few of days.
"If you have one swarm that's the size of the city of Bamako, or the city of Niamey, the amount of food that that one swarm can eat in two days is the same as the population of the whole of Mali or the whole of Niger," Cressman noted.
The end of the world
The Islamist rebels, who have imposed strict Islamic laws in the areas under their control in northern Mali and reported to have placed mines around the town of Gao, destroyed pest control equipment, vehicles and pesticides in that town when they seized it in the aftermath of the 22 March military coup.
There are also fears of environmental damage if the hazardous insecticides are mishandled.
"If the locusts invade, in addition to the Islamists, it will be the end of the world here," said Oumarou Ag Assanatan, a cattle farmer in Kidal town. "We ask the international community to take immediate measures so that these insects do not develop and come to our towns.
"We can no longer count on the government, or the Islamists who are more preoccupied with applying sharia than controlling the locusts."
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Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.