Battling locust invasion

03 Feb 2020

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AS the southern part of Punjab comes under a heavy locust attack from three sides, farmers and provincial officials are assessing the damage done so far and expected in the coming days and weeks.

The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the federal government had to declare a national emergency and approved a plan costing Rs7.3 billion to ward off the crisis.

According to local farmers, the attack has particularly been severe on oilseed crops (such as mustard, canola and sunflower), fodder and wheat. Official figures concede the damage, but a much lower level.

As far as ground reports are concerned, the lower side of south Punjab, areas bordering India and a corridor along the River Sutlej (Bahawalpur and Bahawalnagar), has come under heavy attack.

The upper side, areas along the Koh Suleman range of Balochistan (such as DG Khan, Rajanpur and Rojhan) and down (Layyah and Bhakkar), is also bearing the brunt. These are in addition to Rahim Yar Khan and Sadiqabad, falling along Sindh.

A communication gap between officials and farmers has worsened the problem

As these lines were being written, farmers from the central areas of the province (Sahiwal, Pakpattan and Vehari) are reporting swarms flying over their crops and cities. All these names represent districts with four or five tehsils falling under each of them. Locust swarms have crossed Sutlej river towards central parts of the province.

Officials of Punjab’s agriculture and plant protection departments offer some explanation for the attack, its severity and their inability to fight out the menace.

They think that locust swarms could, and should, have been controlled in relatively barren Balochistan when they first entered from Iran. The most crucial part in controlling the attack is always surveillance — its location, its life stage, size and density — that plays crucial part in control planning.

The swarms escaped the monitoring part when it spread through Balochistan and multiplied in number. Since human- or vehicle-mounted sprays were virtually impossible in the vast expanse of Balochistan and the provincial government did not have airplanes to do the job, locust swarms came to Sindh almost unchecked as westerly winds pushed them down.

In Sindh, its severity doubled as the province came under locust attack from another side — India’s Rajasthan desert and its surrounding areas. Meanwhile, swarms from the Indian side also entered desert districts (along Cholistan) of Punjab and wreaked havoc on crops.

Before this concerted attack, Punjab had located a few hotspots (Haroonabad, Fort Abbas) along the Indian border and had been dealing with them as the province is tracking locust since May last year.

But the Indian locust invasion quickly aggravated the situation and created an emergency. It may be too early to count the final cost, but as per damage assessments so far, out of the total 4,500 acres of oilseed crops in the affected areas, 50 per cent have suffered varying level of locust impact. Moreover, out of 2,500 acres of wheat, 30pc area has taken the hit.

However, farmers have a different story to tell. Malik Naeem, a farmer from the Chishtian city in Bahawalnagar district, says the damage has been much higher, both in extent and spread.

“The first swarm that descended on our area was close to 5km long and 4km wide. It denuded the sunflower crop of all its flowering in the entire area,” he says.

“After destroying seed crops (including canola), it went after fodder crop and my 20 acres of alfalfa now look like a part of a desert. There is severe shortage of fodder in the area now and people are feeding their animals on wheat crop, which is still green and can replace fodder. It would dent the final figure of the staple,” he warns.

However, he partially agrees to the official version on wheat, saying that the crop largely escaped where it had gained a certain level of height and maturity.

Abad Khan, another farmer from the same area, believes that a communication gap between officials and farmers has worsened the problem. Locusts have attacked the area after a hiatus of almost five decades and the younger generation has no idea how to deal with it.

Broad-spectrum pesticides recommended for chemical control did not kill locusts. They only disturbed it, causing a temporary flight to adjoining areas. Given the fact that the relevant departments were tracking locust swarms since May, farmers were neither forewarned nor guided on emerging patterns of locust flight and attack.

In the absence of official guidance, local heresy has been the only solution for farmers to fight the insects, such as lighting smoke, causing noise, etc. As expected, these measures have failed to bear fruit.

“Either it was not a problem big enough for provincial government or it failed to take farmers on board. In any case, farmers will pay the price,” Mr Khan says.

However, Director General Agriculture (Extension and Adaptive Research) Punjab Dr Anjum Ali insists that it certainly is a problem big enough for the government, and regular advisories have also been issued on the subject.

As emerged, it is now a trans-boundary issue and needing a trilateral approach, involving Iran, India and Pakistan. It is also because the locust seems to have gone under some mutation. It should have died when mercury dropped below 10 degrees Celsius, but it not only survived but thrived. All these factors necessitate a fresh look and problem and effort to find solution. “The federal government has already launched a national action plan to control the menace. One should hope for the best,” he says.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 3rd, 2020