The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the tree, ate the mosquitoes, and now we’re malaria free

"Spider trees." Source: Russell Watkins, UK Department for International Development

There’s something odd happening in Pakistan. After major flooding in 2010, one fifth of the region was covered in water. While relief organizations began pouring into the region, there is a tinier, more nimble population that is also doing its part. Millions of spiders, in an effort to escape the ever-rising waters, scrambled up the trunks of trees to create impressive tree cities, or ‘spider trees’ as they’ve been named. This unique phenomenon first gained international attention in 2011 when Russell Watkins, a multimedia editor for the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), stumbled across these trees and snapped a picture, later featured in National Geographic.

While the spider presence can have negative consequences on the trees (killing them from lack of sunlight), they have also helped lower the risk of Malaria in Pakistan. Typically, when regions suffer major flooding, there is an increased risk of malaria because the excess water provides an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. However, with spider webs encompassing many of the trees in the region, more and more mosquitoes are being trapped before they are able to spread disease. As a result, DFID has attributed the lower number of malaria cases to these spider trees.

Worst affected areas. Source: BBC News

While the effect may have been small (as are the insects), it has helped save many from a further crisis. As helpful as these spiders are, international relief efforts are still essential to reduce the impact of malaria. There are still two million people suffering from flood-related disease. The aftermath can affect a region long after the initial disaster and requires dedicated organizations to create sustainable, long-term solutions for affected communities. This has been especially problematic in Pakistan as a result of the 2011 floods which so closely followed the ones that devastated the region in 2010.  Having little time to recover from the 2010 floods, it has been especially difficult for Pakistan to gain international coverage and relief support again so soon. The author of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough calls this trend “compassion fatigue.” She explains that “the public loses interest in problems or disasters if they drag on for too long or if there are too many of them.”

In his blog From Poverty to Power, Duncan Green adds that the problems associated with water do not receive the same attention as other aspects of development because it is not a “sexy” topic.  It doesn’t receive the same amount of coverage as issues like hunger or lack of shoes, and for this reason, there are not enough organizations specifically targeting issues associated with water (such as sanitation, water access, and water-related diseases).

One organization that has made an impact is WaterAid, which has provided relief funds, distributed hygiene kits and mosquito nets, and constructed nearly 700 latrines and more than 100 hand pumps (This organization is also discussed in the CGP Water Series here). In addition, the organization has stayed committed to monitoring the area in order to provide any further support needed. In addition, End Water Poverty is an international campaign which advocates for greater attention and action towards water sanitation, waterborne diseases, and water crises such as flooding and drought.

It is up to coalitions and organizations like these to gain attention for and work on issues which arise from water related occurrences. While spider trees demonstrate the environment’s/ecosystem’s reaction to flooding, they cannot be solely responsible for eliminating malaria in every region. In the meantime, Pakistan has the added support of its insect population to aid in the fight against malaria.

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