Al Arabiya News – Battered by a conflict that has divided the nation, Yemen is facing yet another disaster. As civilians recover from last month’s unprecedented cyclones, the United Nations is now warning of a further serious threat — a swarm of desert locusts.

Experts say Yemen is already in a state of emergency, and with the swarms approaching the nation is just one step away from  widespread famine, making the country even more reliant on external help.

Reem Nada, World Food Program (WFP) regional communications officer told Al Arabiya News in a phone interview: “Ten Yemeni governorates out of the 22 are now one step away from famine. There is a five level scale and those 10 governorates are at level four, which is classified as a state of an emergency.”

“Meaning that one out of five people are severally food insecure, which means that external food assistance is required,” she added.

‘Strict vigilance’

Desert locusts are not a new phenomenon to the region, yet the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for the UN released a statement alerting for “strict vigilance” in the country, stating that close monitoring was need over the coming months to prevent swarms of locusts that could destroy crops across the country.

According to FAO experts, countries affected by desert locusts mostly remained calm during this time of the year, with only small-scale breading activity. However the impact of El Nino in Africa, and cyclones Chapala and Megh that caused flooding and damage in Yemen, could cause a drastic increase to breading activity.

“Extreme weather events, including torrential downpours, have the potential to trigger a massive surge in locust numbers. Rain provides moist soil for the insects to lay their eggs, which in turn need to absorb water, while rains also allow vegetation to grow which locusts need for food and shelter,” FAO senior locust forecasting officer, Keith Cressman, said in a press statement.

The locust incursion in Yemen is expected to take place during the winter season from early January to March of 2016 across the coastal areas of Al Hudaydah and the Gulf of Aden.

FAO representative in Yemen, Salah Hajj Hassan, told Al Arabiya News that hatching had already started last week in Tehama in Al Hudaydah, stating that the first hatch had been recorded and would continue to mid-January in 2016.

But he said “if there is no quick action to control the new generations of locust at winter in breeding areas, swarms may develop and move to the interior areas of Yemen where the ecological conditions are also suitable for locust breeding,” adding that they may also move to neighboring countries.

An adult desert locust can consume roughly its own weight in food everyday (two grams), and a small swarm eats approximately the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people.

“The effects of a locust plague can be devastating on crops and pastures, and thus threaten food security and rural livelihoods,” Cressman said.

Preventing the plague

According to Hassan, the first step needed to be taken is to carry out a comprehensive survey locating the areas where the locusts are and implement a strategy that will control the new hatches of locusts in the breeding areas, which are currently far from agriculture areas. Once the surveys are complete, sprayers and pesticides can be provided to farmers near the breeding areas, where they can be trained on how to control the swarms and prevent them from damaging crops.

However “the problem is that there is no budget to carry out comprehensive surveys or for general operating expenses, such as the transportation of the resources needed to carry out control operations and on-job training for farmers” Hassan said.

Famine threatens war-torn Yemen

Political turmoil, civil insecurity, an intensified war that began in March this year between the internationally recognized government and the Houthis have plunged the country into a serious food security and humanitarian crisis.

A report by the FAO this year found that Yemen’s civil war had negatively affected the availability of food and essential commodities. As a country that imports over 90 percent of its staple foods, the current conflict’s restrictions on importation has caused a major strain on basic necessities. As a result, prices have gone up significantly, both for imported foods and local agriculture produce, leaving many in a vulnerable situation.

In recent months the UN’s food agency WFP estimated that the number of food insecure people in the country is now close to 13 million, including six million who are severely food insecure and in urgent need of external assistance. “Hunger has always been an issue in Yemen, yet the conflict has escalated the issue. It has doubled the number of people who are affected by this. But it did not create the issue, it just made it worse,” WFP’s Reem Nada added.

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