TCS Daily

A Plague of Alarmists

By Roger Bate - August 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Tragedy is striking the Niger. An estimated 3.5 million people are starving in the former French Colony of West Africa, and thousands are expected to die daily. Drought and poverty are the main causes for the lack of food, but over this past year West Africa has also been ravaged by a plague of locusts.

What's the cause of the problem? Some commentators, such as David Loyn of the BBC, have cited man-made climate change as a contributor.

Loyn says, "Climate change has made Niger a more precarious place to live." He notes that "Niger is a stray after-thought, carved out of the remnants of French West Africa when the region won freedom from France exactly 45 years ago this weekend." And he says it's curious that not since the great famine of 1973 has there been a cycle of three bad years in a row. He argues there was a drought last year, followed by locusts which ravaged the region, and this year the rain has been patchy, with very little falling in some areas, so they talk of a second year of drought.

This is his evidence that the current drought is caused by climate change.

What he fails to note is that the famine of 1973 came at a time when global temperatures were at their lowest for most of the past century. Indeed, popular opinion notwithstanding, the link between man-made emissions and drought in Niger is tenuous and theoretical.

What is not theoretical and tenuous is that other Western policies that perpetuate aid rather than trade do cause direct harm, as does an environmental policy that banned the only viable form of protection against the locusts.

The desert locust, which changes color as it develops, can devour its own weight (about an ounce) in fresh food in 24 hours. A ton of locusts, which is a tiny part of the average swarm, eats the same amount of food in a single day as 10 elephants, 25 camels or 2,500 people.

Locusts first moved south last summer from their breeding grounds in North Africa towards West Africa, causing widespread problems last September. But now a new wave of locusts is hatching, and as vegetation disappears in the semi-desert of the Sahel (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Chad) at the end of the rainy season, they are heading back north. After years of drought, this year's heavy rains (in some parts of the Sahel) have provided the perfect conditions for the locusts to breed.

Before they mature and can fly locusts proceed through various stages and can be attacked most easily when they are "hoppers" -- the stage before flight. Once locusts mature and can swarm, only crop-duster style spraying of massive amounts of insecticide can stop them, which is too expensive for these poor nations. When Chad and Algeria were hit by swarms, all their domestic politicians could fund, even with the help of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, were occasional airplane sprayings.

So, it's best to stop them early. But while Cape Verde, Senegal, Mauritania, Libya and Niger all have had massive hopper presence -- and could have significantly reduced the future swarms -- they couldn't afford to do much either.

Why? Because they couldn't use the insecticide Dieldrin. If Dieldrin was sprayed across the path of the approaching hoppers, its persistence would allow a single spray of a thin barrier strip to wipe out vast swathes of hoppers for weeks. But the insecticide is banned by the U.N. Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) for the very persistence that makes it effective to fight locusts. And while there are alternatives, none are anywhere near as cost-effective - costing at least three times more. For the debt-laden cash-strapped countries of the Sahel, lack of Dieldrin has meant not stopping the hoppers.

It makes sense that Dieldrin's high persistence would make it unsuitable for other purposes. But because the countries that are now sending aid -- and designed the POPs treaty -- don't have locust infestations they forgot to exempt it for locust use.

Oh dear.

It is possible that the green alarmists may be correct that this recent drought and famine is exacerbated by man's emissions of greenhouse gases. But in the immediate circumstance what is certain is that these same alarmists pushed a treaty banning insecticides that is now causing death.

Roger Bate is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a director of Africa Fighting Malaria.


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