In south western Balochistan, one of the remotest parts of Pakistan, desert locusts are busy eating crops. According to residents of Garang, a poor, sparsely populated village in Washuk district which lies a few hundred kilometres from Iran, hopper bands of the Schistocerca gregaria — commonly known as the desert locust — are growing by the day.
“Slowly and gradually, these locusts are eating away at everything in cultivated lands. Now, they are moving towards other fields in nearby villages,” a farmer, Maulvi Satar Baloch, told thethirdpole.net.
In the neighbouring Kharan district, which has patches of green and cultivated lands, the situation is similar. Locusts are thriving on vegetation and eating everything green they can find, despite the spraying of pesticide.
This year’s locust infestation is a continuation of 2019’s outbreak in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia, which is said to be the worst in decades.
As farmers described an unprecedented presence of the insatiable pests, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned of a serious infestation that can lead to a major threat to food security.
In a report prepared this week for Pakistan, the FAO has warned of a locust invasion. “Iran and Pakistan are especially prone as locust breeding is taking place in these areas, also due to the wet winter this year. In Pakistan, 38% of the area [60% in Balochistan, 25% in Sindh and 15% in Punjab] are breeding grounds for the desert locust, whereas the entire country is under the threat of invasion if the desert locust is not contained in the breeding regions.”
These locusts are voracious eaters. At anywhere between 10 mm and 70 mm in size, depending on their growth cycle, an adult locust can eat its own weight in food every day — about two grams of fresh vegetation. They thrive in areas where rainfall and green vegetation are aplenty and breed rapidly to swell into havoc-wreaking swarms.
Blow to food supply
To give an idea of the scale of the destruction these pests can unleash, the report’s worst-case forecast predicted “severe damage” in areas where major rabi (winter-sown) crops like wheat, chickpea and oilseeds grow. Losses to agriculture could reach PKR 205 billion [USD 1.3 billion], considering a damage level of 15% to the production of wheat, gram and potato alone. At a 25% level of damage, the FAO estimates total potential losses of about PKR 353 billion for the rabi crops, and about PKR 464 billion for kharif (summer-sown) crops.
“In the midst of additional impacts by Covid-19 on health, livelihoods and food security and nutrition of the most vulnerable communities and populations of Pakistan, it is imperative to contain and control successfully the Desert Locust infestation,” it said.
Cross-border swarms foraging for food
Mubarik Ahmed, Pakistan’s national coordinator for locust control and one of the authors of the FAO report, said the country faces multiple threats from the pest.
See: A plague of locusts
The first, as reported by farmers in Balochistan, is from local breeding, which is taking place due to the remnants of last year’s infestation, which damaged around 40% of the crop in Sindh.
“What we saw in 2019, we haven’t seen since 1993,” said Ahmed, adding that for the first time in decades, the pest inhabited pockets in all provinces of Pakistan. “Prior to that, the locusts were restricted to the Cholistan desert in Punjab or Thar in Sindh in the summer seasons. But last year, they migrated to other cultivated areas of Sindh and Punjab as well as the northern regions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which had never heard of this pest before. They have developed new routes and have even entered Afghanistan.”
Ahmed said these locusts prefer areas where the ground is moist and rain-fed drains are in abundance. “There is a huge network of these drains in Balochistan, where a dormant population from 2019 is breeding. Locusts have not yet entered from Iran.”
The migratory threat from Iran, however, still looms. Ahmed said locusts entered Pakistan last year from two hotspots in Iran — the Sistan Baluchestan province and Bushehr — and could return this year.
Ominously, he said the delayed swarm will be bigger, as the longer period will give more generations a chance to breed.
Lastly, a possible locust infestation can be expected from Oman, where it originated last year, as well as the Horn of Africa which is experiencing excessive rain and mass growth of desert locusts.
In its conclusion, the report said locust populations will move from the spring breeding areas in Balochistan and adjacent areas of southeast Iran to the summer breeding areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. The movement will continue throughout June, so untreated swarms are likely to cross the Indus valley and reach the desert areas in Tharparkar, Nara and Cholistan in time for the start of the monsoon rains. It also warned of a second threat of invasion by swarms in East Africa in late June and in July
The FAO, which established its commission for controlling the desert locust in south west Asia in 1964, is watching the situation in Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan very closely.
Ahmed added, “In the past few days, they have flown from Balochistan to India’s Rajasthan from Fazilka near the border. Locusts don’t require a visa. They look for vegetation.”
India has already reported the threat from locusts, with officials expecting a giant locust storm from the Horn of Africa to attack farmlands and threaten food security.
Kailash Meghwal, a shepherd in India’s desert Jaisalmer district which adjoins Pakistan, said the Rajasthan government had announced it would distribute pesticides and spray guns to all local farmers, but the exercise was halted due to the lockdown forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We need pesticides too,” Meghwal said. “Locusts eat up all the grass and leaves on which our sheep and goats depend. Everyone talks about what locusts do to farmers. They hit us just as hard.”
Climate conditions as drivers
In a note shared with thethirdpole.net, the FAO’s senior locust forecaster Keith Cressman said that while it is difficult to attribute locust infestations directly to climate change, climate conditions are certainly drivers of locust population dynamics.
“Rain is an enabler for desert locust reproduction. Given the right conditions, a locust population can increase 20-fold every three months,” he wrote.
“In the past three years there was an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean that played a role in breeding this current upsurge,” Cressman added. “One of the less visible impacts of climate change is how it will alter the dynamics of pest spread and reproduction. So, while desert locusts are an age-old threat, we fear something is changing.”
Farmer Haji Gulam Hussain said he has gathered farmers to spray infested fields in their Balochistan districts. “After my requests, the agriculture department has provided two vehicles and sprays to us,” he said.
As spring breeding continues in the country, an increasing number of hoppers become adults and form groups, as well as swarms. According to Mubarik Ahmed, young locusts have larger appetites compared to adults and can therefore cause greater damage.
Crop cycles can also affect how much destruction is caused, said Ahmed, as newly growing green vegetation can be consumed totally by the locust, whereas mature crops may lose just their leaves to the pest.
“Right now, crops are getting ready in the province’s Nasirabad belt,” said Mahfooz Ali Khan, an economist with a focus on Balochistan’s financial challenges.
“In Balochistan, 40% of our labour force is linked to the agriculture sector. With locusts destroying crops and authorities focused on Covid-19, we are practically not doing anything to control it.”
He added that locals who are already suffering due to coronavirus restrictions are now helplessly watching as their crops are eaten by locusts.
The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan declared a national emergency in the wake of the locust infestation in February. But federal and provincial stakeholders have locked horns over the issue. The Sindh government alleged that the centre has “left the province at the mercy of the desert locust”, whereas the central government said the responsibility lies with the province.
Fears about food security are at an all-time high, as both lawmakers and those in the agriculture sector are aware of how badly locusts damaged wheat, cotton, maize and other crops last year in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In Punjab, ministers raised concerns over the threat posed by locusts, with opposition politicians hitting out at the provincial government for not doing enough.
The Kissan Board’s central general secretary Jam Hazoor Baksh from Punjab said the weather is favourable for locusts in Punjab, particularly in its southern region. “There was rainfall and now the summer has descended. The situation is ripe for a locust infestation. Crops across the province will be destroyed,” he said.
The Covid-19 threat has further complicated the situation of the locust outbreak in the entire region, said Shakeel Ahmad, sector specialist at FAO Pakistan.
Ahmad said that while the control in Pakistan is going well so far, there is a possibility of a flare up due to the “on ground situation following Covid-19”, which can result in a shortage of food.
China’s helping hand
With support from the FAO, China and the government, a mitigation strategy is in place through which pesticide and spraying machines have been provided to farmers. “The Chinese government is one of the biggest manufacturers of pesticide and has supplied it to Pakistan,” said Ahmed, adding that the FAO has supplied spraying machines as well as given training to farmers.
A team of Chinese experts also visited Pakistan in March to assess the locust infestation.
With this support, the government has developed a ‘National Action Plan for Surveillance and Control of Desert Locust in Pakistan’, with a mandate to safeguard national food security through efficient coordination with key stakeholders; timely resource mobilisation; effective surveillance, control operations and mass awareness activities.
Tariq Khan, the technical director at the Department of Plant Protection (DPP) at the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, said the infestation is being fought with the help of the three-stage plan, but that if it is not controlled, the locust infestation “is a serious threat in the entire South Asia region.”