By David Lewis
DAKAR (Reuters) - Locusts nesting in northern Mali and Niger threaten next year's food crop, the U.N.'s top aid official in the region said, after donors and governments across Africa's Sahel zone have contained a crisis caused by shortages this year.
Rains falling across the Sahel bode well for a healthy 2013 harvest but the pests, due to start moving across the region within weeks, add to long-term problems like high food prices and low production which must be tackled to end cyclical crises, David Gressly told Reuters in an interview.
Poor rains last year meant 18 million people across an arid strip of nations stretching from Senegal in the west to Chad in the east faced a twin food and nutrition crisis this year.
"We are in the final stages of the lean season now and by and large the overall crisis was contained," Gressly, the U.N.'s Sahel humanitarian chief said late, praising the swift moves by governments to recognize the problem and donors to respond.
"You cannot avoid all suffering - the world is not perfect in that regard. But we have avoided the kind of problem we saw the previous year in the Horn (of Africa)," he added.
In 2011, one of the worst droughts in decades left Somalia at the epicenter of a hunger crisis that affected up to 13 million people across the Horn of Africa. Tens of thousands of Somalis died during the famine that at one point left some 750,000 people facing imminent starvation.
Detailed tolls from the Sahel are hard to come by but a quarter of a million children in the zone die of malnutrition in good years, and Gressly said about 1 million children had to be treated for the problem this year, double the number last year, when food was readily available.
Gressly said the rains had been "pretty good" so the acute crisis that nations faced this year should be avoided in 2013, but the threat of desert locusts hangs over this year's crop.
A first generation of locusts has already hatched and a second generation is expected but there is a lack of detailed information as one of the main breeding grounds in northern Mali is under Islamist control, making action almost impossible.
"Normally what you would want to do is control them while they are in their nesting areas but that has not really happened, certainly in northern Mali, so that is why there is a heightened concern right now," Gressly said.
The United Nations says the current infestation threatens some 50 million people and is the worst since 2005, when a wave of locusts devoured crops causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.
As Mali, at the heart of the Sahel, grapples with months of rebellion that forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes this year, elsewhere in the region attention is turning to long-term development issues to help buffer food shocks.
Gressly said that donors will have spent about $1.6 billion to tackle this year's crisis, the latest in a series to strike nations perched on the Sahara's southern rim where governments have struggled to tackle frequent failed rains, low producing crops and stubbornly high food prices.
"That is a lot of money that could have been better spent in years past to prevent this type of thing from happening."
"I believe a smaller annual investment of this kind of money would avoid the kind of problems that we see today with a high price tag, but also a high price tag in terms of suffering that goes with it," he added.
(Editing by Joe Bavier and William Hardy)