BEIRUT: Israel is not the only transgressor violating Lebanon’s airspace.Farmers and city-dwellers alike were taken by surprise over the weekend when flights of locusts descended on parts of the Lebanese coast, from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north.
While Sunday’s drop in temperature is expected to kill off or drive out the most recent wave of winged invaders, global warming could make locust infestations a real threat to Lebanon’s crops and environment.
“Usually we have these hot winds from Africa coming in April, not mid-March, but we are having them earlier, and not just one or two periods of hot winds [but many],” warned Nabil Nemer, an entomologist and head of the agriculture department at Holy Spirit University in Kaslik.
“If we have frequent hot winds coming from Africa and the temperature is not dropping due to climate change, we will have a problem,” Nemer told The Daily Star.
The desert locusts that Nemer said arrived on the seasonal winds from Africa known locally as khamseen are still reddish in color, indicating they are too young to incur much damage. Four weeks of warm weather would see the insects into sexual maturity, at which point they become “voracious,” eating anything green in order to store energy for reproduction.
Moreover, he added, the locust has no natural predator in Lebanon.
“The problem is that the locusts are migratory so the predators do not come with them,” Nemer said. “That’s why the desert locust has been studied for so many years, and caused tremendous damage in the Gulf and Africa ... There is no biological control when we have migratory insects.
The government, on both a local and ministerial level, has scrambled to assure farmers their crops are safe.
General Director Louis Lahhoud emphasized Sunday that the wave of insects was “light” and “Lebanon’s climate and environment do not allow their numbers to increase, particularly given the cold weather now in Lebanon after a short warm front and four days of winds.”
He also insisted the ministry was following up with a “central operations room” to monitor affected areas.
Nader Ghazal, the head of the Union of Tripoli Municipalities, told The Daily Star all member municipalities were taking measures against the locusts, including spraying insecticides throughout Tripoli and its environs.
But according to Nemer, spraying would have little to no effect on the insects unless it was very closely targeted, and one long warm spell is all it could take to breed a new generation of cold-resistant locusts.
“If the female lays eggs in spring, now, the eggs they will adapt themselves to this temperature,” he said. “The only advice I have for people is that they should not be afraid of them and they should also ask the proper people [for information], rather than relying on pesticide companies who will take advantage of the situation.”
Of some half a dozen farmers who spoke to The Daily Star, about half said they had not seen any locusts, while the remaining reported finding just a few. Still, many were unnerved by the appearance of the insects.
“In the past, they said locusts came, 100 years ago, [in the time of] our grandparents, but I don’t know anything about locusts,” said an elderly woman selling her produce along the road in Dammour who declined to give her name.
Tony Azzi said he only found one or two locusts in his tomato field in Jiyyeh, but between the severe winter storm that struck Lebanon earlier this year and the unseasonable warmth that brought the locusts, climate change is taking its toll on farmers.
“[Global warming] is starting to show,” he said. “This year we had an unnatural amount of rain ... it caused a lot of problems.”
Amira, who cultivates a nearby plot, said she was worried the locusts could be the beginning of a larger wave, which could devastate her crops just as the harvest season for many fruits and vegetables starts. “We sprayed, but it didn’t do anything,” said Amira, who declined to give her last name. “If you kill a few, more come.” – Additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh