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July 6, 2020

From pandemic to pestilence


July 6, 2020

Pakistan has been ravaged by the pandemic COVID-19 and has suffered tremendously, with a heavy toll of lives although the worst is not over yet. While the country’s leadership and people were teetering under the impact of the epidemic, another calamity has befallen the nation. This time it is a pestilence in the shape of a locust attack, which is a threat to the crops, food security and the economy.

Pakistan has seen locust attacks in the past too but none of the magnitude, which has targeted both India and Pakistan. The worst plague of locusts in 70 years has already affected East Africa but now with the weather being conducive to the breeding of locust, millions of them have invaded Pakistan.

The locust attack issue being a very serious issue in Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan declared a national emergency in response to swarms of desert locusts invading the eastern part of the country and allocated Rs26 billion (approx. $155 million) to control the spread and attack of locusts. The desert locusts — large herbivores that resemble grasshoppers — arrived in Pakistan from Iran in June and have already ravaged cotton, wheat, maize and other crops.

Although, agriculture is an important sector of Pakistan which is highly developed and Pakistan is considered the world’s second largest exporter of cotton, the fifth largest exporter of mangoes and numerous other produce, this year food scarcity is likely to prevail, adding to the woes of the nation.

According to the country’s Ministry of National Food Security and Research, Pakistan’s annual wheat requirement is 27.47 million tons, but the crop production this year was less than 25 million tons due to multiple factors including locust attacks, untimely heavy rains and infestation of fungal disease yellow rust. Favorable weather conditions and a delayed government response have helped the locusts breed and attack crop areas. Their potential for large-scale destruction is raising fears of food insecurity.

National Food Security Minister Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar has said that the locust swarms were currently on the Pakistan-India border around Cholistan and were previously in Sindh and Balochistan. The anti-locust operation has been carried out in 31 affected districts of the country, covering approximately 2.2927 million acres of area, in order to eradicate the pests and save agricultural land from its harmful effects. As many as 966 joint teams comprising over 5,082 people took part in the campaign, according to details released by the National Locust Control Centre (NLCC).

District administrations, voluntary organizations, aviation division and armed forces have been put into operation to combat the attack and save the crops but apparently a Herculean effort will be required to pull Pakistan out of this crisis.

The last time Pakistan saw a serious threat of locusts was in 1993. Recently, a Chinese technical team visited Pakistan to assess the situation. It reviewed the state of locust-affected districts of Punjab with the Punjab agriculture department in Lahore.

The team presented its aerial and ground assessments to the ministry’s officials. The technical team in return, prepared and submitted a comprehensive report to the ministry, based on which the Chinese assistance was determined and the national action plan was strengthened in line with the recommendations of the report.

Pakistan has seen sporadic locust attacks in the past too. In the early sixties, the locust attack was so severe that the Plant Protection Department had to deploy PAF aircraft modified to spray insecticides aerially to control the locust attack.

While Pakistan and India may be exchanging barbs and artillery shelling at the LoC, they are expressing a rare show of camaraderie, to hold back to back meetings to deal with the one common enemy — the very intrusive desert locust. Back in 2019, multiple districts of Rajasthan and Gujarat faced huge damage to standing crops. As per the agriculture ministry, it is also predicted that invasion could occur in scheduled desert area (2 lakh sq. km) of India in July 2020 with the advent of Monsoon by spring-bred swarms from southeast Iran, southwest Pakistan and the Horn of Africa that may be of a greater magnitude than last year.

Pakistan has to handle the locust plague on a warfooting and get as much help as possible from neighbouring India and China. Pakistan was “working closely” with regional countries, including India and global partners, particularly the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to address the looming locust threat.

FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer has stated that India and Pakistan face an “imminent threat of several waves of spring-bred swarms” from southwest Pakistan and southern Iran.

The Hindu newspaper quoted Indian officials as saying that Iran has welcomed the offer of pesticide to control desert locusts in the arid Iranian province of South Khorasan and the Sistan-Balochistan province that borders Pakistan.

Analysts say the danger posed by the locust attack has apparently pushed New Delhi and Islamabad to set aside mutual differences to increase cooperation to tackle the challenge at a time when both countries are struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite mutual tensions, locust-related cooperation between India and Pakistan has been going on for decades to ensure food security in both countries. Let us hope this time combined Indo-Pak cooperation will stem the tide of the pestilence.