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Fear grips farmers as locusts advance towards cotton crop

Updated June 17, 2019

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AN operation to control desert locusts in progress in Balochistan’s Dasht area.—Dawn
AN operation to control desert locusts in progress in Balochistan’s Dasht area.—Dawn

KARACHI: Desert locusts are advancing towards the cotton crop in Khairpur where in recent days they have taken over parts of the district in Sindh province and are now threatening thousands of hectares of the plant, it emerged on Sunday.

The day also saw a visit to locust-infested areas by the federal minister for national food security who claimed the government was making all-out efforts to contain the pests but farmers voiced their reservations.

Speaking to Dawn, farmers in Khairpur expressed grave concern over the looming danger to estimated 30,000 to 40,000 hectares of the cotton crop and said if effective measures were not taken, the insects in their millions could infest the agricultural fields located a few kilometers away from the locust infested area in Nara and Mirwah talukas in Khairpur district.

“The greenbelt is located just seven kilometres from the infested area where these insects are feeding on wild bushes. We fear they could fly away and cause widespread havoc to our crops,” said Nisar Khaskheli, president of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture, Khairpur.

Minister visits affected areas, claims all-out efforts under way to contain menace

He regretted no local help was available in case of such an emergency and the subject was the exclusive domain of the federal government. “The provincial government doesn’t offer any assistance since it doesn’t deal with this subject while most landlords don’t have four-wheel drive vehicles that could go into the desert area and initiate some action to fight pests,” he said.

This period, he pointed out, was critical for the crop sown last month and already very vulnerable to any kind of pest attacks.

About past locust attacks, Mr Khaskheli said it last occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Locals said they heard of the locust outbreak in the Nara desert and Mirwah area a week before Eidul Fitr following rain in the area.

The desert locust is potentially the most dangerous of the locust pests because of the ability of swarms to fly rapidly across great distances, according to experts. The locusts first affected Yemen from where they migrated early this year to Saudi Arabia and then to Iran.

Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Sahibzada Mohammad Mehboob Sultan visited the locust-affected areas of Nara and Thari Mirwah in Khairpur on Sunday, according to a press release. “The government is doing all possible efforts to control the menace,” he stated.

Moreover, the Ministry of National Food Security and Research through its Department of Plant Protection (DPP) and in collaboration with UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation had activated all resources to meet the “General Operating Expenditures” survey-and-control operations in a very vast locust affected area of the country stated the press release.

An aircraft of DPP had conducted aerial surveillance of the locust-affected area of Thari Mirwah in Khairpur and also carried out aerial spraying in Sarai Mardan area. The ministry, in a statement on Sunday, said an aircraft was deployed at Sukkur airport for possible emergency aerial spraying in Nara desert.

The ministry, in a statement on Sunday also said so far 2,000 hectares had been treated in Thari Mirwah and a ground team was still working in the area.

Situation in Balochistan

“The outbreak was first reported two months ago and gradually it has taken over 99 per cent of our vegetation,” said Khuda Aziz Baloch heading a local farmers’ organisation in the Dasht area of Kech district.

He had informed the deputy commissioner Turbat of the situation but there was hardly any action. “Last night, a team of federal government’s DPP came with only one vehicle and sprayed pesticide on a small area. This is gravely insufficient,” he said, adding that Dasht was dependent on agriculture spread over 32,200 acres.

The team, he said, told him that aerial pesticide spraying couldn’t be carried out in the area because it didn’t have security clearance.

Rafique, a resident of Kallag, part of Turbat tehsil, narrated similar conditions prevailing in his area as well as Jusak and Ginnah, expressing dissatisfaction over government measures.

Explaining why aerial spraying has not been conducted in Balochistan so far, director technical DPP Tariq Khan said aerial fleet would only be applied when “locust hoppers were spread over hundreds of hectares”. “We believe ground operation is more effective in the present situation. There should be a scientific justification for an aerial operation,” he added.

‘Training at local level’

Commissioner Makran Division Tariq Zehri rejected reports of widespread damage to crops and said damage to agricultural fields was only 15 to 20 per cent as “young locusts were only feeding on leaves and not damaging other parts of plants”.

“Over the last 60 days, we have been able to contain these pests in 80 to 90 per cent of the infested areas including parts of Turbat, Pasni and Gwadar. Now, only 15 to 20 per cent areas are left,” he said, adding that federal government’s DPP was providing full support.

According to him, three subsequent showers of rain in the Makran division provided conducive conditions to locusts which migrated from Iran. “They multiply fast so it’s a continuous challenge to contain these pests,” he said, that the situation would improve by end June as locusts were now moving towards Sindh and India.

Responding to a question by Dawn, he said there needed to be a trained staff with necessary supplies at least in those districts bordering Iran to respond to such emergencies promptly.

--Amin Ahmed in Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2019