Locusts: a local menace

27 May 2020

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A field in Punjab, before and after the locust attack.
A field in Punjab, before and after the locust attack.

As Pakistan goes through a third, and an unprecedented, wave of locust attack, a well-known adage seems to define its situation and policy: hope for the best and prepare for the worst. With a mixed record of hosting and dealing with the herbivore insects, it now feels it can ‘handle the challenge locally’. However, it is not sure how other regional countries — especially Iran, India and Afghanistan — are dealing with the menace and how much future invasion can come from the three sides of the borders.

The federal authorities believe that they had, by and large, cleared the local deserts — Cholistan and Thal — and were tracking and containing small pockets when a fresh three-pronged invasion made it worse. Had it not been the invasion from Iran, India and, of late, Afghanistan, the pest may have been limited to doing small damage in pockets here and there but would have certainly not turned into a national issue as it is right now.

Punjab, however, differs from this federal conclusion. It thinks, rather insists, that the overwhelming majority of the current attackers hatched locally. The wet winter provided locusts ideal conditions to hatch in Punjab’s desert areas — the Thal region falling in western and central districts like DG Khan, DI Khan, Khushab, Bhakkar, Layyah and Jhang. By all evidence and observation, locusts did not cross the Koh Suleman area — bordering between Punjab and Balochistan — and breeding took place within Punjab’s precincts.

Both federal and provincial authorities agree that the trouble was largely contained in these districts as army teams joined the provincial effort in February and relentless surveys and sprays were carried out in peripheral areas and were slowly closing in on core areas. It did not allow swarms to fly out of the area, at least initially.

Authorities agree that some kind of mutation has taken place and two internationally-accepted factors of this grasshopper’s lifecycle have been broken the in the last seven months

But then suddenly, one major swarm took off, divided into four and flew into as many different directions — affecting 24 out of 37 Punjab districts. Right now, these flying flocks have created a corridor right across the province and migrating to Cholistan and India, damaging crops along the way.

Authorities agree that most of the locusts were killed by the sprays and what flew out of the area was not more than 10 per cent of what hatched. Had it not been contained, the cost for Pakistan agricultural could have been much higher than the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s estimate of Rs600 billion.

The federal and provincial authorities also agree — though differing on the extent — on some kind of mutation taking place of this variety of grasshopper. They think that two internationally-accepted factors of locust lifecycles have been broken in the last seven months. Most of the world experts predicted that locusts would fly out of Pakistan during winter and return after breeding in spring. However, it did not. Rather, it hatched locally in the extreme cold (as much as minus 14 degree Celsius) in Ziarat area of Balochistan.

Based on previous experiences, experts suggested that locusts breed mostly in plain deserts but the egglings were spread all over Balochistan’s hills this winter. This mutation, if proven and documented further, could give the problem a local dimension and shift the onus on Pakistan to deal with it rather than deflect responsibility to neighbouring countries. Punjab’s story that the overwhelming majority of the current crop of locusts hatched locally also fits the frame.

Conceding minor damages to crops — especially to early-sown cotton, fodder and to some extent fast-maturing mangoes — the provincial authorities think it has not been as widespread as generally believed or claimed by farmers. This is because farmers were more aware than the last attack that took place in winter and are dealing with it better this time.

According to provincial estimates, there may be 500 acres of cotton that suffered varying levels of damages, but not beyond 10pc. The rest of the damages are negligible. Punjab has started an individualised survey of farmers who reported losses and will soon be able to share the exact cost.

Farmers, however, have other stories to tell. They fear that provincial authorities continue to be in a state of denial, as they were during the Rabi season. Pakistan has not been able to complete the wheat procurement target despite harsh administrative measures because of a much-reduced crop size — a fact never conceded by the provincial authorities.

Right now, hundreds of acres of cotton have been wiped out. Re-sowing those acres is a problem for two reasons: a paucity of quality seed and money for the effort. The damages are still mounting and only time will clarify the Kharif cost.

Hameed Ullah Malik, focal person on locust with Punjab’s provincial disaster management authority (PDMA) thinks that though Pakistan is now much better equipped for handling the menace, the decisive factor will be how Iran, under sanctions and unable to procure particular pesticides, handles its part and how India deals with summer breeding on its side of the border. These are the missing links in Pakistan’s planning, otherwise, things should be under control — especially if farmers continue updating PDMA and agriculture authorities on the on-ground situation in their fields and continue cooperating.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 25th , 2020