Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines

AGRICULTURE-SOMALIA: Army worm Invasion Poses Threat To Main Crop

Judith Achieng'

NAIROBI, May 25 1999 (IPS) - Army worms, which since last month have devastated parts of East and Central Africa, have now invaded Somalia, worsening the precarious food situation in the Horn of African country.

An assessment report says an oubreak of the African army worm, a serious cereal pest in southern Somalia, threatens the entire crop of the main ‘Gu’ season. This crop is still at a young stage.

The report of the Food Security Assessment Unit (FSAU) of the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns of major food shortage in Somalia if the invasion goes unaverted.

The most affected areas include Jaamaane and Kismayo in southern Somalia’s Juba valley, the country’s breadbasket. Maize and sorghum have been affected also in the Middle Juba, Lower Shabelle, Bakool and Hiran regions.

In Ooryoley districts, the Horn of African country’s maize basket, whole fields of the crop have been wiped out, according to the report.

The timing of the invasion, particularly now when crops are still at a tender stage is worrying. “Since most of the crops are at the seedling stage, even a light attack at this stage can be devastating,” the report says.

Experts say the African army worm is one of the most serious seasonal insect pests in eastern Africa, besides the desert locust.

The worm, the larvae of the night moth with a life span of between 10 and 20 days, moves fast through vegetation, usually in large numbers, eating large quantities of cereal plants and grasses, before they turn to the pupation stage in the soil, and become winged adults.

“It is at the larval stage of this nocturnal moth that it causes extensive damage to rangeland grasses, cereal crops and sugarcane,” says Brenda Barton, a WFP spokesperson in Nairobi.

Other crops like vegetables, tea and coffee are, however, left unattacked.

The worm outbreak was first reported late April in Rwanda and Burundi, followed by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The worms have destroyed thousands of hectares of cereal crop in these countries.

The threat for Somalia is especially worsened by the absence of a central government to undertake the spraying of crops.

“Should a serious outbreak occur in Somalia, given the absence of a government, there would be no time available for the international community to organise and launch interventions before irrevocable dammage, potentially of a very large scale, occurs to the 1999 Gu season crop,” the FSAU report says.

Somalia plunged into civil conflict in 1991 after the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre who had been in power since the 1970s. The country has since broken into clan-based fiefdoms protected by the country’s numerous warlords.

Even in situations where the government is in place, like Kenya and Tanzania, small-holder farmers have been unable to control the invasion in their plots, and more than 20,000 hectares of cereal crop have so far been destroyed in the region since the invasion began.

Governments in countries affected by the outbreak have had to launch large-scale campaigns in their respective areas to fight the pests.

Normally the worm populations are kept under control by natural predators like birds, but in cases of severe outbreaks, pesticides are the alternative, Barton explains.

The FAO representative in the region Daniel Gustasfon told IPS that the only way to prevent the moths from destroying crops is by breaking their cycle before they reach the destructive larvae stage. “You have to move ahead and catch the cycle before it breaks into the caterpillars.”

Gustasfon said FAO has already dispatched experts to monitor the situation in Burundi and Rwanda, and is now waiting for their feedback.

The FSAU report says regular outbreaks of the worm are usually reported in parts of Somalia, especially during the Gu season between April and June, and the Deyr season between November and December, but nothing as serious as the current outbreak.

The report says that although the extent of the damage already done so far by the pests, as well as their potential threat to the harvest are not yet known, there is indication that the outbreak will spread further north in the coming weeks.

The worm invasion also comes at a time when Somalia has been experiencing food difficulties since the 1997 El Nino floods, which killed at least 2,000 and displaced 50,000 families in the south.

Last year’s total maize production of 66,000 tonnes fell short by 49,400 tonnes, while sorghum did poorly at 22,000 tonnes of the required 108,000 tonnes.

By the end of last year, FAO had predicted that at least three million people in the country’s southern areas would need emmergency food aid until the end of the Gu season next month.

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