A massive swarm of locusts is descending on Egypt, creating scenes reminiscent of the eighth plague described in the Book of Exodus. The timing is particularly unusual as Jews later this month will be celebrating Passover which retells the Israelites’ dramatic journey to freedom from slavery in Egypt. According to the Bible, Pharaoh released the slaves only after his people were struck by ten plagues.
Though it’s a seasonal scourge – there’s even an “anti-locusts department” in the Agriculture Ministry - this locust infestation is particularly pesky. Egyptian media report that this year’s swarm numbers an estimated 30 million insects making their way north from Suez to Cairo. Farmers along their path are on high alert, worried their crops could be wiped out, and are accusing government officials of doing nothing to prepare for the invasion.
Salah Moawad, an Agriculture Ministry official, says locusts have even landed on the runways of Cairo International Airport after being chased from other locations. Flight delays were not reported.
Egyptian authorities are deploying crop-dusting aircraft and even the military to combat the locust assault. Egyptian Agriculture Minister Salah Abdel Momen says, “The armed forces and the Egyptian border units are trying to battle the swarm with various means at their disposal.”
“I ask the families living in the area afflicted with the swarm to not light car tires,” he said. “It doesn’t drive the locusts away, it only causes damage, and it could start a fire that will take human life,” Abdel Momen added.
He’s also trying to instill a sense of calm, declaring perhaps prematurely on Friday that the locusts would not damage crops. After meeting with President Mohammed Morsi last week to discuss the locust-combatting plan, the minister had this explanation, as paraphrased by Egypt Independent:
The locusts are merely storing fat on their bodies while they go on their spring migration outside of Egypt, the minister said, adding that they store the needed fat for over a week to remain light, thus making their journey easier.
The Agriculture Ministry official Salah Moawad also denied the locusts had caused damage. “The current inspection teams at areas targeted by locusts did not witness swarms damaging a single inch of crop till now,” he said.
Those words were quickly belied by Alwatan News which reported on damage to agriculture.
Contrary to the official façade of calm, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that the Ministry of Agriculture has cleared 11,000 hectares of crops threatened by the bugs.
Albawaba quotes figures from the UN's FAO which say a one-ton swarm of locusts is able to consume “the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people."
Israel is also keeping a watchful eye on the infestation. Due to the cooler ties that characterize the two countries’ relations since the Muslim Brotherhood took control, Israel’s Army Radio reports Israel is getting no cooperation from Egyptian authorities to keep the swarm from crossing the border.
Moshe Weiss, Israeli Agriculture Ministry Deputy Head of Plant Protection Services tells Army Radio that he and his colleague are being updated by UN officials, not by Egypt. “We are waiting and are hoping it doesn’t arrive. We are preparing crop-dusting planes and are preparing to put people in the field,” Weiss said in an interview Monday morning.
Army Radio Correspondent Rami Shani reports that in the past, Israel and Egypt had a joint tracking system, but the more icy relations have led to a severing of cooperation in this area, forcing Israel to rely on updates from intermediaries, that is, international organizations.
Israeli farmers on the southern border have been instructed to set up observation points and to report if they see the locusts. Weather reports predict strong winds will blow the locusts south on Wednesday toward the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia, so – like in the Bible - Israel is likely to be spared.
Several YouTube users have posted this video showing a huge number of locusts loudly flying over Egypt:
Update: On Monday evening, Israel’s Agriculture Ministry reported that a “small” locust swarm had entered Israel and was seen over the Negev Desert.
Avigdor Kalfa, Field Growers Manager of the Negev Moshav Company, tells Army Radio that the swarm reached Ramat Negev, where there are presently no crops being grown so “we are less fearful.”
“But the fear is they will move further north and then there will be a problem,” Kalfa said.
Despite the forecast that winds will blow the locusts south away from Israel, the country’s Agriculture Ministry is taking no chances. It’s set up a hotline for farmers to call at the first sight of an infestation. It has also reached out to pesticide suppliers to make sure the inventory is in place should a need arise.
Agriculture officials are urging calm, with one official emphasizing to Ynet: "The problem is when they appear in the millions."
"It looks like a black cloud – you really can't miss it – and they will eat anything. They can devour acres of crops very fast," he said.