Tragedy struck Niger, the former French colony of West Africa, over the summer. Millions were at risk of starvation. Political corruption, drought and poverty were the main causes for the lack of food, but over this past year West Africa has also been ravaged by a plague of locusts.
Commentators tried to blame Western policies for contributing to Niger’s famine. David Loyn of the BBC even cited man-made climate change as a contributor: ‘Climate change has made Niger a more precarious place to live,’ he wrote.
Niger was a ‘stray after-thought, carved out of the remnants of French West Africa when the region won freedom from France exactly 45 years ago,’ said Loyn. And in 1973 it suffered the peak of its worst famine. A three-year famine devastated the country causing widespread starvation and thousands of deaths. As in most famines, political mismanagement contributed more to death than the weather. With drought in 2004 and low rainfall in 2005 Loyn draws parallels with that great famine and implies that climate change is contributing.
This was the only ‘evidence’ he presented that the current drought was caused by climate change. He fails to note that the famine of 1973 came at a time when global temperatures were at their lowest for most of the past century. Popular opinion notwithstanding, the link between man-made emissions and drought in Niger is largely theoretical and tenuous.
But Western policies that perpetuate aid rather than trade do cause direct harm, however worthy the original intentions. And this is also true for the environmental policy that banned the only viable form of protection against the locusts which have caused such devastation. 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 ten 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 over the summer a new wave of locusts hatched and vegetation disappeared in the semi-desert of the Sahel (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Chad). With the end of the rainy season, the locusts are heading back north. After years of drought, this year’s heavy rains (in some parts of the Sahel at least) 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 expensive – too much for these poor nations. Chad and Algeria have been hit by swarms and all their domestic politicians could fund, with the help of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, was occasional aeroplane spraying. But Cape Verde, Senegal, Mauritania, Libya and Niger have all had massive hopper presence and could have significantly reduced the future swarms, but they couldn’t afford to do very much.
And that is because they couldn’t use Dieldrin, an insecticide banned by the UN Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Dieldrin was sprayed across the path of the approaching hoppers and its persistence meant that a single spray of a thin barrier strip was enough to wipe out vast swathes of hoppers for weeks. There are alternatives, but none are anywhere near as cost-effective (on a useful life–cost basis alternatives are at least eight times as expensive), and for debt-laden cash-strapped countries of the Sahel lack of Dieldrin meant not stopping the hoppers.
Dieldrin’s high persistence means it is available to bioaccumulate up the food chain, and can cause birth defects and therefore should not be used for anything else but stopping locusts. Nevertheless because the countries that are now sending aid, and also designed the Stockholm POPs treaty, don’t have locust infestations they forgot to exempt it for such use.
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 what is certain is that these same alarmists pushed a treaty which is causing death.
Roger Bate is a resident fellow at AEI.
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