Locust attack threatens food security in South Asia

The UN has warned of a major blow to food supply as locusts gobble up crops and gather to sweep across the region
<p>A farmer shows a locust in the Okara district of the Punjab province in east Pakistan. In some parts of the country, farmers have suffered huge economic losses due to locust attacks. (Photo: STR / Xinhua / Alami Live News)</p>

A farmer shows a locust in the Okara district of the Punjab province in east Pakistan. In some parts of the country, farmers have suffered huge economic losses due to locust attacks. (Photo: STR / Xinhua / Alami Live News)

In south western Balochistan, a remote part 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, bands of desert locust nymphs 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,” said Maulvi Satar Baloch, a farmer.

In neighbouring Kharan district, which has patches of green and cultivated lands, the situation is similar. Locusts are thriving on vegetation, eating all 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 UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned it could lead to a major threat to food security.

In a report prepared for Pakistan, the FAO 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.”

islamabad locust swarm
Desert locusts in Khushab, central Punjab province, Pakistan, 1 March 2020. (Image: Liu Tian/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)

Each day, a locust can eat its own weight – about two grams of fresh vegetation. They thrive particularly in areas where rainfall and green vegetation are plentiful and breed rapidly to swell into havoc-wreaking swarms.

Blow to food supply

The FAO report’s worst-case forecast predicted “severe damage” in areas where major rabi (winter-sown crops like wheat, chickpea and oilseed) grow. At a 25% level of damage, the FAO estimates total potential losses to agriculture of PKR 353 billion (US$ 2.2 billion) for the rabi crops, and 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.

The first, as reported by farmers in Balochistan, is from local breeding by last year’s population, 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 insect 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.”

locusts in pakistan, 1952

Ahmed said these locusts prefer areas where the ground is moist and rain-fed drains are abundant. “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.

Another possible 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.

locust swarm map pakistan
Hoppers are wingless larvae or nymphs. They become more gregarious as they grow, gathering in groups which then merge into bands. After the final moult, the new adult has soft wings that must dry and harden before it can fly. Groups of adult locusts are known as swarms and can spread across several kilometres (Source: FAO data)

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. Locusts don’t require a visa. They look for vegetation.”

India has already reported the locust threat, with officials expecting a giant swarm 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

The FAO’s senior locust forecaster Keith Cressman said in a note that while it is difficult to attribute locust infestations directly to climate change, weather certainly drives 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.”

Pakistan’s preparedness

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 nymphal “hoppers” become adults and form groups and swarms. According to Mubarik Ahmed, young locusts have larger appetites than 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.

“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.

With locusts destroying crops and authorities focused on Covid-19, we are practically not doing anything to control it.

“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 the insect, 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 could 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.

chinese locust expert digs in the sand
Zhang Long searches for eggs in Khushab, Punjab province, Pakistan, 2 March 2020. The Chinese government sent an emergency response team of experts to Pakistan to help control the locust plague there. The experts have visited almost all affected areas, including Tharparkar desert in southern Sindh province, southwest Balochistan province and different affected districts of Punjab where locusts have already laid eggs (Image: Liu Tian/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)

With this support, the government has developed a National Action Plan for Surveillance and Control of Desert Locust in Pakistan, to try and safeguard food security.

Tariq Khan, technical director at the Department of Plant Protection 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.”

This article was first published on our sister site The Third Pole.