ISLAMABAD: Faced with worst desert locust infestation for a quarter of a century, Pakistan is fervently pushing for international cooperation to limit the impact of the invasion by ravenous pests while intensifying domestic surveillance and control efforts.
An official, involved in the inter-agency coordination for locust control efforts in the country, told Dawn at a background briefing that it was increasingly becoming clear that the situation was “far worse than anticipated”.
Pakistan was always on the ‘front-line’ of locust infestation in Southwest Asia because it had two breeding seasons — spring and summer — for the world’s most destructive migratory pest and also fell in the route of migratory swarms, but last year newer breeding pattern emerged with unprecedented ‘third generation breeding’, taking place and infestation spreading to districts that traditionally did not have the locust problem like Okara, Sahiwal, Jhang and Dera Ghazi Khan districts in Punjab.
According to a recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, 38 per cent of the Pakistani territory was breeding ground for the locust (60pc in Balochistan, 25pc in Sindh and 15pc in Punjab), but now the entire country was under the threat of invasion if the insects were not contained in the breeding areas.
All four provinces have already reported the problem
All four provinces of the country have already reported the problem.
Simultaneously, locust numbers in East Africa, eastern Yemen and southern Iran are increasing dramatically. Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda are the most affected countries in East Africa, which is the epicentre of the crisis.
The current spread of the locusts began in 2018 and is linked by some experts to climate change. First there were two rare cyclones – Cyclone Mekunu (May 2018) and Cyclone Luban (October 2018) – that caused massive rains in the unpopulated desert on the southern Arabian Peninsula known as the Empty Quarter bordering Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Since the area was remote, there weren’t any surveillance and control measures allowing the locusts to breed in ideal conditions.
In 2019, the locusts from there moved rapidly towards South invading Yemen and Horn of Africa and also north towards Iran and Pakistan. Longer than normal monsoon last year again helped the infestation, producing three generations of the hoppers. To make the matters worse Indian Ocean Dipole – a sea warming phenomenon – caused more rains towards the end of 2019, which unusually saw eight cyclones in Indian Ocean.
“Our initial expectation was that the problem would gradually end towards the end of the last year, but that did not happen, instead third generation breeding took place,” the official explained.
This year there has been widespread breeding of the locusts in Pakistan during Spring and groups and swarms have begun to emerge. The groups have been noticed in Khuzdar, Washuk, Nushki, Dalbandin, Panjgur, Chagai Hills, and between Gawadar/Pasni and Turbat (Balochistan); Kashmore, Ghotki, north of Sukkur (Sindh); Rajanpur, Bahawalnagar, Dera Ghazi Khan, Okara, and Sahiwal (Punjab); and Dera Ismail Khan and Lakki Marwat (KP).
According to FAO’s latest forecast: “Current hopper groups and bands will form immature groups and small swarms in Balochistan, the Indus Valley, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that will move to Tharparkar, Nara, and Cholistan during May and June. Limited second generation hatching will occur in northern Balochistan, causing hopper groups and bands to form. Additional groups and swarms from spring breeding areas are expected to arrive along the Indo-Pakistan border during June.”
Another FAO report shows that a swarm from Somalia is also expected to reach here by June.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MFSR) has warned that swarms of desert locust are expected to migrate from Iran and other places to summer breeding regions in Sindh and Punjab.
June is, therefore, likely to be the most difficult period when multiple swarms are expected to reach here although early arrivals will begin mid-May onwards.
Pakistan’s control strategy
Although, MFSR’s Department of Plant Protection began its control efforts last year by surveying and treating large areas across the country, the first concerted national effort began this year with declaration of national emergency to control locusts on Jan 31. This brought together National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and its provincial wings, the army and the food security ministry.
“The capacity of civilian machinery was not adequate especially because they had not dealt with a problem of this magnitude for decades. Therefore, the armed forces too had to be roped in for the national effort,” the official said, and explained that the military’s role pertained to logistics, data gathering and monitoring of the situation.
The federal cabinet also approved a National Action Plan for Desert Locusts 2020 -21. The plan envisioned three phases of surveillance and control activities: January to June 2020 (Phase 1), July to December 2020 (Phase 2), and January to June 2021 (Phase 3). The enormity of the situation, however, forced the government to revise the plan even before the completion of its first phase. MFSR says the plan is being adjusted to “to make it more effective and resourceful”.
As of beginning of May, nearly 125,000 sq kms area in Pakistan had been surveyed and 8,900 sq kms or about 50,300 hectares of land had been treated. Much of that was done by specialized Ultra Low Volume (ULV) vehicle-mounted sprayers. Nearly, 4600 hectares have, meanwhile, been treated aerially using a Beaver aircraft and a helicopter borrowed from army.
“Our efforts are being impeded by shortage of equipment, which we are trying to procure. We urgently need sprayers and mobile units. We also require pesticide and emulsified concentrate,” the official said.
The procurement has been complicated because of the overlapping Covid-19 crisis. The manufacturers are struggling to deliver the required equipment and pesticides within the preferred timeframe because of global lockdown.
It is estimated that these procurements would cost Pakistan $24 million.
Various scenarios have been worked out for the potential losses that could occur due to infestation. It is projected to be anything between Rs205 billion to Rs 817bn till 2021 depending on the scale of damage to the crops caused by the locusts.
Seeking international cooperation to tackle the situation is among the top priorities at the Foreign Office.
“All of our related missions are on it, pressing countries that are having or are expected to suffer from it to take action, improve coordination, share data, and exchange information on the control measures taken so far,” the official said about the diplomatic part of the effort.
Pakistan invoked FAO’s South-West Asia Commission for Locust Control in March this year. Besides, Pakistan other members of the commission are India, Iran and Afghanistan. Much of the technical coordination is being done through this mechanism, although Pakistan is also bilaterally engaging countries in this forum and others in the Arab world over the issue.
A major issue being faced in this regard is that Arab countries have not been sharing enough data about the locusts and the control measures they have undertaken. In the absence of this data, Pakistani entomologists are finding it difficult to foresee the exact impact on the country.
The official, while underscoring the need for international cooperation said, that controlling locust invasion is difficult even in normal circumstances, but these are challenging times because of Covid-19 pandemic and the scale of expected infestation.
FO Spokesperson Aisha Farooqi said Pakistan received 194,000 liters of pesticide (Malathion) and 28 high-powered spray machines in two batches from China.
Pakistan requires 381,000 liters of pesticide and 325,000 liters of emulsified concentrate. About 176 vehicle mounted sprayers are also needed.
Turkey has, meanwhile, provided Piper Brave spray aircraft. The aircraft was transported on a C-130 by Pakistan Air Force on Wednesday.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2020