The locust plague

Updated June 24, 2019

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The inhabitants of Thar Desert in Sindh and Choolistan in Punjab are praying for good monsoon rains.
The inhabitants of Thar Desert in Sindh and Choolistan in Punjab are praying for good monsoon rains.

The inhabitants of Thar Desert in Sindh and Choolistan in Punjab are praying for good monsoon rains as it will allow green vegetation to grown and sweet water for their animals. Unfortunately, such prayers may boomerang as it may result in a natural disaster in the form of a locust outbreak.

Locusts are short horned grass hoppers. Desert locusts of Africa and Asia are normally solitary, but spring rains trigger a behavioural transformation that can results in a swarms of locust. A single swarm ranges from 100,000 to 1 billion locusts.

Hindustan Times reported a locust outbreak in Rajasthan after 26 years on May 29, 2019. According to the news story, millions of locusts have attacked vegetation in the Jaisalmer district after migrating from bordering Pakistan.

This year, widespread heavy rainfall during March and April in Balochistan’s locust breeding areas created ideal ecological conditions for the proliferation of locusts. As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Desert Locust situation update of May 14, 2019, second generation of locusts are expected to cause an increase in the spring breeding areas in Saudi Arabia and Iran owing to prevalent ecological conditions. Locust breeding and outbreak has also been reported from Kuwait, Jordan and Yemen.

Balochistan has witnessed small-scale breeding of locusts but the Locust Control Division of the Department of Plant Protection (DPP), working under the Federal Ministry of National Food Security and Research, did not bother to undertake a regular survey.

This lapse allowed the second generation of hoppers to mature by the end of May and start migrating from its spring breeding areas to the summer breeding areas of Thar desert.

Inadequate rains in the desert for the last few years have rendered the desert devoid of green vegetation. The dry soil did not provide suitable conditions for locusts to lay eggs. Therefore the migrating locusts may not pose any serious threat of locust outbreak in the Thar Desert except low scale damage to standing crops like guar, maize, sugar cane, cotton etc in the areas adjacent to the desert in the upper Sindh region.

However, DPP has a different story to tell.

According to DPP, a few locust swarms migrated from Iran to Balochistan undetected in March 2019 where the ecological conditions were conducive due to rainfall. Therefore, DPP’s relevant control team immediately went to affected areas and started operations through which an area of 22,450 acres has been successfully controlled.

However, the extent of locusts migrating to Nara Desert and Choolistan Desert, as well as Rajasthan Desert in India, disproves DPP’s claims of success.

The DPP is also carrying out operations in Thari Mirwah of District Khairpur. Till June 19, 5,930 acres of affected area had been treated with pesticides. On June 16, the Federal Minister of National Food Security and Research Sahibzada Muhammad Mehboob Sultan visited Nara Desert and expressed his satisfaction on the ongoing control campaign.

However, the current strategy of operating a spray aircraft from Sukkur airport, 70km away from the target area at about 10am, is a waste of public money. Spraying of pesticides should be undertaken at dawn, using the abandoned air strip adjacent to Chundiko Town of Nara Desert. This strip was used by the DPP during the 1993 anti-locust campaign to contain the menace effectively.

The writer is an ex-entomologist, Department of Plant Protection and President Agriwatch Society of Pakistan

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 24th, 2019