For nearly 30 years, Mullah Khan Mohammad has worked his family’s land in Surkh Kotal – near the great archaeological site of the same name – in Baghlan province. Baghlan, in northern Afghanistan, is known as the country’s breadbasket due to its significant wheat production. “Since we returned [in the early 1990s, after the Soviet-Afghanistan war], we have been cultivating wheat, beans and seasonal vegetables here,” said the 45-year-old farmer proudly, as he showed The Third Pole around his farm.
But Mohammad is now facing another enemy: locusts are ravaging his harvest. “So far, about 60% of our produce has been affected by malakh [locusts]. Soon there will be nothing left,” he said dejectedly.
Mohammad is not alone, and farmers in surrounding districts shared similar woes with The Third Pole. “The locusts have destroyed more than half of our harvests this year,” said Ahmadzai, a 50-year-old farmer from Baghlan. “There isn’t even enough chaff left to feed the animals,” he added.
Warning of dangerous locust outbreak
An advisory issued by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on 10 May 2023 warned of a major outbreak after Moroccan locusts (a species of locust which is found from north Africa to western Asia) were reported from 10 of Afghanistan’s provinces. “The last two big outbreaks, 20 and 40 years ago, cost Afghanistan an estimated 8-25% of its total annual wheat production. A full outbreak this year could result in crop losses ranging from 700,000 to 1.2 million metric tonnes of wheat – up to a quarter of the total annual harvest,” Richard Trenchard, the FAO’s representative in Afghanistan, told The Third Pole in an email on 4 June 2023, repeating the text of the advisory.
Trenchard also shared data on damage caused by locusts across Afghanistan’s northern and northeastern provinces up to the first week of June. Samanghan, Baghlan and Kunduz had been the worst affected, with 6,000 hectares, 5,000 hectares and 4,500-5,000 hectares respectively damaged by locusts. Most of the land affected was pasture, but wheat, sesame, green gram, and cover crops were also impacted.
In both the advisory and in his comments to The Third Pole, Trenchard emphasised that this year’s harvest had been the best in three years – significant in a country struggling with food security. “But this [locust] outbreak threatens to destroy all the recent gains, and dramatically worsen the food insecurity situation,” he wrote.
Afghanistan has been experiencing an extreme humanitarian crisis since the government takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 due to a host of factors, including an extended drought. As a result, nearly 20 million people in the country are facing acute hunger, “including more than 6 million people on the brink of famine-like conditions”, according to UN estimates.
Impact of climate change
Afghan climate scientists who spoke to The Third Pole attributed the recent spike in locust populations to changing precipitation patterns.
“The life cycle of locusts is highly dependent on weather patterns,” explained Wahdatullah Khaplwak, an academic currently based in Japan, whose work focuses on plant protection and agricultural policy.
Afghanistan is currently experiencing a third consecutive year of drought. “The biology and ecological needs of Moroccan locusts are being met due to the drought conditions and minimal rainfall, leaving the soil barren and untouched, but [with] enough moisture to allow the eggs to hatch sooner than usual and the larvae to thrive on the sparse vegetation,” Khaplwak said.
Trenchard added: “Due to the drought, herders moved to other locations in search of pasture. This meant that the locusts hatched unnoticed until they were unmistakably multiplied from the hatching. The alarm bells rang late.”
Lack of mechanisms to control locusts in Afghanistan
According to the most recent Climate Risk Index published by the NGO Germanwatch in 2019, Afghanistan ranked sixth among countries most impacted by climate change-induced disasters, such as increasingly powerful cyclones, extreme rainfall leading to floods and landslides, and longer dry seasons resulting in droughts. These impacts have been further exacerbated under the Taliban regime, which lacks the resources and expertise required to deal with the worsening impacts of climate disasters in the region.
While Afghan farmers are no strangers to the challenges of pest outbreaks, a lack of support during the current breakout has left them vulnerable. “There are certain medicines, one called Malathion, that we mix with water to spray on the fields that can kill these insects, but not everyone can afford it,” said Ahmadzai. If not eradicated everywhere, locusts will simply move from one farm to another and continue to thrive, he explained.
Mullah Khan Mohammad told The Third Pole that the local directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture had distributed some pesticides, but not enough. “They provided 25 litres of the chemical to our shura [council of tribal leaders], but it isn’t sufficient to cover the area of farm lands in our district,” he said.
In the absence of access to chemicals, Ahmadzai explained how locals turn to traditional methods of locust control instead. The whole community, farmers and their families gather together, he said, and after having identified young locusts which have not yet developed wings, sweep them into a large tarpaulin using brooms. The locusts are then buried in trenches.
“This isn’t very helpful,” he said.
The FAO’s Trenchard explained: “A month after hatching, the locusts become adults and develop wings, after which they form big swarms which fly to the lowlands and continue damaging agricultural crops.”
Not long ago, Trenchard said, Afghanistan had a very strong locust control system in place, involving responding to any signs of an outbreak with traditional methods of gathering and burying locusts as well as chemical treatments. However, under the current Taliban regime – which is not officially recognised by any other country and faces sanctions – resources and funds available to support Afghan farmers remain sparse.
Sanctions imposed by the UN and United States upon specific actors within the Taliban have been interpreted by the global banking sector as applying to the whole of Afghanistan, despite clear exemptions for payments for food and other essentials, which has brought the country’s banking sector to a halt. Even the UN has been forced to physically transport millions of dollars in cash every week to continue operating its projects.
This lack of resources, combined with a paucity of time to prepare owing to the delay in initially catching the locust outbreak, means that organisations working with Afghan farmers have not been able to mobilise funds or procure chemicals and appropriate equipment to tackle the pests.
“The Moroccan locust life cycle is complete within a month, and if one delays in taking action, it means [that in] the second month, one is dealing with 20 times the number,” Trenchard told The Third Pole. He also said that the response from the Ministry of Agriculture to the recent outbreak has been “encouraging” but “heavily constrained”, due lack of available chemical reserves and resources.
“The government needs to make more efforts to help farmers to reduce the damage they [locusts] can cause,” Ahmadzai said. So far, there is little evidence that the current government response has been sufficient; on 17 June 2023, Afghanistan’s chamber of agriculture and livestock made another appeal to the government to take more action.
Borders no barrier to locusts
If left unchecked, the current locust outbreak could threaten food security across an already unstable Afghanistan. “The socio-economic effects of a famine triggered by this could have an impact greater than one we can imagine,” Khaplwak said.
According to the FAO advisory, wheat yield losses due to the locust outbreak could cost the country between USD 280 million and USD 480 million.
“It will cause irreversible long-term effects on the life of Afghans, in particular the farming communities and the most vulnerable ones. Already, five decades of conflict followed by recent political instability in the country have left almost 50% of the population food-insecure, with an increasing number of kids and nursing women malnourished,” Khaplwak elaborated.
The devastation of a major locust outbreak would not be limited to within Afghanistan’s borders. Once they develop wings, Trenchard warned, swarms can fly for up to 250 kilometres, damaging agricultural crops along the way. “Depending on the wind strength, the locust swarm flights can also cross borders reaching neighbouring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan,” he said.
Khaplwak also recommended establishing an intergovernmental body in the region to tackle the locust outbreaks which seem to be occurring with increasing frequency as climate change worsens.
“A regional anti-locust centre [formed] by countries in this region who are affected could help regularly monitor and forecast [locust outbreaks] each year. It could be equipped with required technologies and financial resources that can take quick actions, serving mutual benefit for the region,” he suggested.
Failure to contain the current outbreak now could result in a “hundred-fold” increase in locust populations in the coming years, Khaplwak warned. “If a proper management strategy is not applied, the outbreak could lead to life-threatening circumstances for not just Afghans, but impact everyone in the region.”
Editor’s note: An Afghan national contributed to this report, and provided the pictures. Their name is being withheld for their safety.