AN ancient scourge is back with a vengeance in Pakistan for the first time in two decades. Swarms of locusts have been advancing inside the country since early June, and after cutting a swathe of destruction through Balochistan, are now ravaging vast areas of Sindh. Thousands of acres of cotton crop could be devastated, that too at a time when Pakistan is already reeling from an economic crisis. South Punjab is on high alert given the alarming invasion of these insects in other parts of the country. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in its latest Locust Watch Report has warned that the situation in Pakistan is “most serious”. According to it, the second generation of these voracious insects has emerged and as they proliferate, so will their capacity to lay waste to cropland and exacerbate food insecurity.

Heavy rainfall coupled with high temperatures creates the perfect conditions for locusts to breed, and climate change could reshape their distribution area. Research organisations and government authorities in Pakistan must turn their attention to this possibility, of which we may well be experiencing the opening act. Provincial agriculture departments claim they are taking measures to combat the infestation, but they have been very slow off the mark. While close to 40,800 acres have reportedly been treated so far and training sessions held in Punjab to build the capacity of government officials and technical staff, many farmers in Sindh — Balochistan has already seen the worst — are complaining that vast areas have not been sprayed with insecticide. Interestingly enough, the present invasion may have its roots in the Yemen war, which has affected locust control measures there, enabling huge numbers of the insects to migrate further, through Saudi Arabia, Iran and onward to Pakistan. The authorities here thus had a substantial window in which to prepare for their arrival and ensure that spraying was done at the nymph stage — before the insects can fly — to forestall proliferation. Of course, the most severe impact of the swarms will be borne by the farmers. Aside from those in the fertile agriculture belt, rural populations in already impoverished areas will see their difficulties intensify further. Severe locust infestations, by giving rise to local food shortages and the disadvantages that come with malnutrition, have been shown to even impact school enrollment rates. This is an emergency — which may become a recurrent one — and must be treated as such.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2019

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