Locust attack in Pakistan and its control

November 17, 2019

Pakistan is primarily an agricultural country and the livelihood of 62 percent of our population is connected with agriculture; 23 percent of our national income is generated from it. Even though...

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Pakistan is primarily an agricultural country and the livelihood of 62 percent of our population is connected with agriculture; 23 percent of our national income is generated from it. Even though our country has been gifted with all the blessings of Allah; four seasons, five rivers, huge network of irrigation canals, including link canals; connecting one river to the other, fertile land and hardworking farmers, yet still our yield per acre is much less compared to that of other countries. Our agriculture faces potent threats including desert locust attacks.

The locust resembles the grasshopper in structure. It has been mentioned in both the Holy Quran and the Bible, as well as appearing in ancient Egyptian engravings. Locusts naturally occur in African deserts, specifically the deserts of Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea, but recently it has been a nuisance in the sub-continental region as well. Locusts travel in swarms and their pattern of flying is similar to that of birds, migrating from the cold atmosphere of Siberia to a warmer climate in the south. Locusts travel from Africa and fly thousands of miles, crossing the sea upto 150 km per day and stopping at night time due to wetting of its wings. They settle on the surface of the sea, layer by layer, forming a heap-shaped mountain. An incident is reported where a ship encountered a mountain in the middle of the sea it was actually a heap of locusts settled down on the surface of the water. The locusts in lower layer drown and die but the upper layer resumes its journey in the morning. Locusts usually nestle in the desert where they lay eggs in a strange manner. The female Locusts lay eggs, usually 150 at a time, inside a tube which they hide in the sand. The larvae of locusts need suffocation, moisture and warm weather to thrive and are generated during a two-week period but if it’s cold, eggs remain dormant throughout winter. The colour of locusts is usually yellow, pink or brown.

There was a recent locusts attack in Pakistan in early summer 2019. The previous attack occurred back in 2010, where locusts entered Ghotki in Sindh from the border of India. It kept entering Pakistani border at Sanewari in the form of flood between pillars number 570 and 571. Heavy locusts attack in Pakistan has been occurring every 8 to 10 years. It usually travels from Africa, crossing the Red Sea and reaches Iran from Saudi Arabia and Yemen than it enters Balochistan and spread in desert of Tharparkar and Cholistan. This year the locust swarm could not effectively be controlled in Saudi Arabia due to the Yemen war; as a result relatively more destruction spread in Iran. From Pakistan, they enter India, where the monsoon winds force them to return back. Locusts are attracted to greenery and could wipe out flourishing fields of cotton and paddy in moments; hence they can only effectively be controlled in the desert area which is their natural habitat.

In Pakistan locust control is primarily the responsibility of Department of Plant Protection under the Ministry of National Food Security & Research. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) a subsidiary agency of UNO provides proper guidance in this regard and monitors the swarms from satellites. The Canadian-made Aircraft “Beaver” is used for the aerial spraying operation. The Department of Plant Protection has five airworthy Beaver aircraft; kept in two Hangars, one at Walton Airport Lahore and second at the Karachi Airport. These aircraft, though old, but are well-equipped, its tail-wheel, high-wing made by De Havilland of Canada having single engine of Pratt and Whitney Company which is 450 horse power radial turbo charge. Beaver is so reliable it can even land on snow, water and soft land. Such planes are also used by residents of coastal areas of Canada and Alaska for the purpose of transporting grocery. The aircraft is an eight seater which can fly continuously for five and half hours. It can carry upto four barrels of pesticides and can spray 2,000 acres. These aircraft are perfect for low flying, quality of aerial spray and locust control is unmatched. Along with aircraft, Defender jeeps with installed spraying systems are also used in the locust control mission.

Three aerial bases were setup in Sukkur, Rahim Yar Khan and Bahawalpur, for the purpose of locust control. On 15th of June, 2019, we flew from Karachi to Sukkur on Beaver aircraft for locust control mission. During those days Sukkur was under intense heat waves. Locusts were present in the form of swarms, continuously arriving from Iran and Balochistan in the Nara desert area of Thari Meerwah and Saleh Pat, situated 50 nautical miles away from Sukkur. We used to take off for our operation after Fajr prayer and complete the last sortie around 9am. The early hours of our mission were due to two reasons, firstly locusts stay on land at night and start flying after sunrise, hence it was the best time for spraying. Secondly the desert was extremely hot in the summer and our aircraft could not fly beyond the temperature limits. We stayed in Sukkur at SRSO, an NGO in Sindh. Many of our workshops and seminars were conducted in the IBA University Sukkur. From Sukkur we would fly over Khairpur, a city known for its date palm trees and marvelous aerial scenic beauty. After spending two months in Sukkur, we shifted to Rahim Yar Khan and are currently stationed here for the past two months.

Locust first attacked Gunniawala, the area of Cholistan desert of Rahim Yar Khan, near the Indian border. Due to tense conditions with India, we were directed by Civil Aviation Authority to remain 15 nautical miles away from the border and the department continued locust spraying with Defender jeeps near Indian border. Numerous camps were established in the desert where the locusts were being controlled through jeeps and our Aerial Wing was kept informed about the presence of locusts through GPS. Up till now, over one hundred thousand hectares area has been sprayed and cleared of locusts. Luckily locusts did not hit any green belts, and thousands of hectares of cotton and paddy were saved from locust attacks by the department which is a great success of ours. Locusts cannot survive in cold weather and migrates back to Africa in winter during his third generation stage. Although locust is hazardous to the crops, it is a favorite food for the local people, as it has a great amount of protein and fats. Locust pulao and roast locust are much loved dishes.

The writer is deputy chief pilot/ focal person at Walton Airport, Lahore. He can be reached

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