KARACHI: The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in a recent report has warned of a potentially serious food security crisis this year in several regional countries, including Pakistan, due to locust attacks.

The report titled ‘Desert locust situation in Pakistan’ highlights migration pattern of desert locust in South West Asia, its current invasion in different countries, potential impact on Pakistan’s agricultural economy as well as the ongoing efforts of Pakistan’s government to contain the pest and the emerging scenario.

According to the report, Pakistan and Iran in the Eastern Region are especially prone as locust breeding is taking place in these areas, also due to the wet winter this year.

“In Pakistan, 38 per cent of the area (60pc in Balochistan, 25pc in Sindh and 15pc 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,” it says.

FAO report highlights migration pattern of locust and its potential impact on agricultural economy

The report shows that swarms of locusts would be migrating to Pakistan in coming weeks/months from southern Iran, border areas of Iran-Balochistan, Oman and East Africa.

‘Unprecedented threat’

The current situation in East Africa, the report says, remains extremely alarming as yet another generation of breeding has occurred with more swarms forming and maturing in northern and central Kenya, southern Ethiopia and probably in Somalia.

This represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods because it coincides with the beginning of long rains and the planting season.

“As it is now the beginning of the seasonal rainy period, another generation of breeding will take place that is expected to cause a dramatic increase in locust numbers in East Africa. Locusts will also increase in eastern Yemen and southern Iran in the coming months.

“Consequently, there is potential for a serious invasion to occur (in Pakistan) at the beginning of the summer this year by swarms migrating from the Horn of Africa and from Iran,” the report says.

Risk assessment

Damage scenarios have been estimated for Pakistan in case control operations are not fully effective in areas where major Rabi crops like wheat, chickpea and oilseeds could be severely damaged in the short term.

It has been estimated that the losses to agriculture in case of a locust invasion can reach about Rs205 billion, considering a 15pc damage level for the production of wheat, gram and potato only.

At 25pc damage level, the total potential losses are estimated to be about Rs353bn for Rabi crops and about Rs464bn for Kharif 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,” the report suggests.

According to the report, the last serious desert locust invasion in the eastern region occurred in 1993. Beginning in mid-2018, some 25 years later, a major upsurge of desert locust developed in the Arabian Peninsula as a result of two cyclones that brought heavy rains to the Empty Quarter along the borders of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.

“This resulted in three generations of breeding and an 8,000-fold increase in locust numbers from mid-2018 to early 2019 in an area where survey and control activities couldn’t be conducted due to extreme remoteness of the area.”

Migration pattern

Focusing on Pakistan, the report says that spring breeding will continue in the next few weeks in the coastal and interior areas of Balochistan and an increasing number of hoppers will become adults and form groups as well as perhaps a few small swarms.

No major presence of locust in Sindh, however, was noted at the time the report was prepared.

Towards the end of May, populations will begin to 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. This movement will continue throughout June.

“As a result, swarms that are not detected or treated in the spring areas 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.

“This year the situation is aggravated as for the first time in many decades, there is a second threat of invasion by swarms in East Africa in late June and during July,” the report says.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2020