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Locusts complete triad of humanitarian threats facing Iran

‘The density of locusts in the swarms is so high that a 10-to-15 centimetre layer of dead locusts forms on the ground after spraying pesticides.’

(Bogdan Suditu/Flickr)

For the second consecutive year, locust swarms are threatening widespread destruction across southern Iran’s farmland in what’s expected to be the worst infestation in more than half a century. 

Millions of insects are invading from the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia, just as an earlier-than-normal spring rainy season hatched the local population. So far, the combined swarm has damaged at least 4.8 million tonnes of agricultural products in the country, according to the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA.

“There’s a generation of locusts in southeastern Iran every year, and that’s not the problem, as preparations have always been made to fight the insects,” said Keith Cressman, senior locust forecaster for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. “The issue this year is that swarms from outside invaded the southwest of the country, while seasonal rains came early.”

At the same time, Iran has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with at least 99,000 confirmed cases and more than 6,300 deaths as of 6 May. When combined with rising flood waters in the north of the country that may have damaged as many as 80,000 homes, the locusts round out a three-front crisis. The nation’s economy is already suffering, with double-digit inflation rates and a Gross Domestic Product expected to contract six percent this year, under pressure from both the economic shutdown associated with the coronavirus and the stranglehold of escalating US sanctions

Iranian government officials declined to estimate the locusts’ potential impacts on food insecurity in interviews with The New Humanitarian. But locust swarms have had deep repercussions elsewhere. In Ethiopia, which is also facing its worst desert locust outbreak in decades, a swarm that hit 200,000 hectares earlier this year left one million people in need of food assistance.

While Iran has the workforce to tackle the locust invasion, sanctions hinder importing ultra-low volume pesticides, the chemicals sprayed in small concentrated doses and most commonly used to fight desert locusts. 

“It’s pretty much the only way to treat the locust,” Cressman told TNH. “But considering the unavailability, they sprayed whatever they had, often mixing large quantities of water with other pesticides in a desert region that is already struggling with drought.”

US regulations make broad allowances for Iran to import agricultural commodities, but the country faces a steep logistical hurdle in finding ways to pay for anything it buys internationally since the United States has made it exceedingly difficult for Iran to access the world banking system, said Farhad Alavi, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specialises in trade issues, including sanctions and export controls.

“Banks around the world are really following the US lead,” Alavi told TNH. “Often even what is allowed under US law isn’t happening.”

Compliance measures that were even more stringent were introduced to govern humanitarian purchases last October

On 22 April, the Norwegian Refugee Council called on US and EU authorities to review sanctions worldwide and remove any impediments to humanitarian aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those who impose sanctions need to carefully consider how humanitarian organisations and the private sector respond to them,” said Jan Egeland, NRC’s secretary general. “No matter what the intentions, if people can’t get medical treatment or go hungry because of fear of falling foul of sanctions, then those imposing them bear the responsibility.” 

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Infestations spread

Desert locusts are yellow flying insects that grow to 10 centimetres and are considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world. A swarm covering one square kilometre contains up to 80 million locusts and can eat as much food in one day as 35,000 people. And they move fast – up to 150 kilometres a day and 3,000 kilometres throughout their lifespan. Female locusts lay up to 80 eggs and live three to five months in three stages: egg, hopper, and adult.

Originating from the desert known as the Empty Quarter, which spans parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, large locust swarms spread uncontrollably last year to both East Africa and Iran.

In late February, Iran was once again infested when seasonal rains arrived early and provided a fertile breeding ground. This year, the insects have so far invaded at least seven mainly southern provinces, including Hormozgan, Sistan and Baluchestan, Bushehr, Fars, Khuzestan, South Khorasan, and Kerman. Many areas are mostly desert land, but officials fear the swarms are making their way toward more farmland. 

Millions more may still hatch before the rains dry up toward summer and the insects push east toward Pakistan and India.

Iran’s Ministry of Agriculture hasn’t revealed just how much farmland is threatened by this year’s locust infestation. However, when the pests set in at about this time last year, officials with Iran’s Plant Protection Organisation, or PPO, warned 21 percent of all farms in six affected provinces would be hit, threatening $9 billion worth of agricultural products. 

The region produces wheat, rice, fruit and nuts, including walnuts and dried fruit such as raisins and dates that are exported both regionally and to destinations as far away as Europe and China. 

“The density of locusts in the swarms is so high that a 10-to-15 centimetre layer of dead locusts forms on the ground after spraying pesticides.”

In 2019, Iran treated 740,000 hectares with pesticides and, according to the FAO, still suffered crop losses over 500,000 hectares. The country is aiming for similar pesticide coverage this year, even while managing the coronavirus outbreak. 

As of early May, more than 133,000 hectares had been treated, and OCHA reported that locusts had damaged at least 55,000 hectares of farmland in one province alone.

“The density of locusts in the swarms is so high that a 10-to-15 centimetre layer of dead locusts forms on the ground after spraying pesticides,” said Reza Mir, a PPO spokesperson.

A cross-border threat to farms and food

Iran’s government considers locust teams essential workers and has excluded them from the coronavirus-related lockdown. It’s also using social media to reach farmers.

“While the majority of people can’t access different areas of the country due to quarantine regulations, we are using channels such as Facebook and Twitter to inform farmers about locust migration,” said an Iranian government official, who asked not to be identified as he wasn’t permitted to speak to the media. 

The current locust outbreak represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in the region, especially because farmers have just planted their first annual crops, Iranian government officials told TNH.

South Asia is already girding for battle. In Pakistan, food prices have soared as farmers combat the worst locust outbreak in almost three decades. The country declared a national emergency on 1 February. Government officials in India said they were preparing for a “two-front war” as the coronavirus outbreak is set to collide with locust swarms from both Iran and East Africa. The invasion is expected just ahead of the summer monsoon season due to start in June and usually lasting through September.

Pakistan and Iran have collaborated on containing locust plagues since 1995. This year, they’re working together again. 

There’s also a weekly call between Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India in which the four countries exchange information on locust movements. Teams from India and Pakistan even regularly meet on either side of their respective borders, despite the two nuclear powers having no other diplomatic relationship.

“It’s an example of joint collaboration between countries, regardless of political strains,” Cressman said.

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