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Afghan Wheat Crops Threatened by Locusts - 2002-04-21

In Afghanistan, the worst locust infestation in 30 years is threatening wheat crops in the north. The recent heavy rains have been both a blessing and curse for farmers.

Agricultural officials with the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) say they are working around the clock in farming communities in northern Afghanistan to stop a potential disaster.

In mid-March, billions of locust eggs, deposited a year ago in low-lying desert areas, hatched simultaneously. Since then, the hungry young locusts have been hopping toward wheat fields in nine provinces. The most severely affected provinces are Samangan, Baglan and Kunduz, near the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border.

That part of northern Afghanistan has traditionally been the country's breadbasket. UNDP agricultural project manager Richard China in Kabul says the loss of wheat crops there could sharply worsen the food shortage already plaguing many areas of this war-ravaged country.

"If the locusts were not controlled, maybe 70 percent of the crops would be destroyed," he said. "Given our estimates of the area under cultivation, the damage could be equivalent to $60 million."

Mr. China says several factors have made the locust infestation particularly bad this year. Poor harvests caused by three years of drought made farmers complacent about the problem. Some in north often could not farm because of bitter fighting between Northern Alliance rebel forces and the Taleban.

The fall of the Taleban in November and heavy rainfall in recent months have encouraged farmers to plant enough crops to produce a sizeable surplus this year. Ironically, the end of the drought and peace have now created ideal conditions for locusts to proliferate into a threat not seen in 30 years.

The UNDP is employing two methods to kill the pests. One method is to dig 20 centimeter-deep trenches around the wheat fields. The hopping locusts become trapped inside the trenches, where they are buried and turned into fertilizer. The other method is to spray large sections of the desert with pesticide.

The goal is to destroy the locust swarms before they reach maturity and are able to fly. Mature locusts can cover more area and eat twice as much as young insects.

In addition to bloody wars and civil unrest, Afghanistan has suffered countless natural disasters in its long history. The latest were two deadly earthquakes that hit the Hindu Kush region of northern Afghanistan late last month. The quakes killed more than 1,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless. The locusts threaten to add to the misery.