Clearly, the government’s slow and ineffective response to the swarms of locusts has caused substantial damage to the standing crops
The authorities in Jhang have come up with a strategy to battle a plague of locusts – they have told farmers to play dhol, loud and rhythmic, to scare off the approaching swarm. Nice try, but dhol isn’t the best way to fight off locusts. The United Nations warns that locusts don’t wait – “They will come and they will destroy the crops”.
This is the second time since 1993 that locusts are threatening to devastate crops in Pakistan. They have ruined cotton, wheat, maize, and tomatoes crops in Sindh, Balochistan, south Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“Around 300,000 square kilometre of farm land is vulnerable to the recent outburst,” says Dr Anjum Ali Buttar, the director general for Agriculture Extension in the Punjab. “Sixty percent in Balochistan, 25 percent in Sindh, and 15 percent in the Punjab. Cholistan, Nara, Tharparkar, Umarkot, Nagarparkar are the worst affected. Apart from desert lands, 4,500 acres of mustard and 2,500 acres of wheat crop have been destroyed already.”
The federal government declared an emergency in the first week of February 2020. However, it has been holding meetings to chart out a strategy to fight this kind of infestation since June 2019. But nothing has come out of these meetings, complain agriculture experts.
Farooq Bajwa, the Farmers Associates Pakistan director and a member of Agri Commission-Punjab, says that locusts arrived in November 2019. “The government did not pay heed to what was coming; despite warnings by national and international organisations,” he says.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a warning in November 2019, when the swarm started leaving their reproducing grounds along the India-Pakistan border.
The Department of Plant Protection (DPP), a wing of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research (NFSR), has the primary responsibility for keeping track of desert locusts and to prevent their multiplication. However, the outburst of desert locusts clearly indicates that the DPP has not performed its due duty efficiently.
An agriculture expert associated with the NFSR says that initially the government took the locust threat very lightly and did not release funds to fight it. “The government decided to wait, hoping for locusts to fade away in winter, just like mosquitos. It was a non-serious approach,” he says.
“Early intervention is understood to be the most successful way of dealing with locusts. The technology to control locusts is now available. But organisational, financial, and political shortcomings are harder to overcome,” he says.
Without substantial support from the government, farmers are trying to protect their crops on their own, “despite their meagre resources,” says Farooq Bajwa.
Dr Anjum Ali Buttar disagrees with Bajwa. “The government has provided immense support. It has distributed 54,000 litres of pesticide among farmers to spray in fields. The worst affected areas are Jhang, Layyah, Mankera, Okara, and Pakpattan. We have successfully eradicated it from more than 90 percent of the Punjab. 4,000 litres of pesticide is still available in stock, and we have invited tenders for another 18,000 litres.”
The federal government too has invited quotations for pesticides and ULVA sprayers. According to the notification issued by the National Disaster Management Authority, quotations are required for 100,000 litres of Malathaion and 50,000 litres of Lambda Cyhalothrin pesticides.
Azeem Khan Niazi, Public Affairs & Sustainability Lead, Bayer Pakistan, says that usually two methods are used to control locusts – a) the locusts are targeted early by applying water-based, contact pesticides using tractor-based sprayers – “this is effective but slow and labour intensive”; b) the use of ultra low-volume spraying of contact pesticides from aircraft in overlapping swathes is effective against nomadic bands and can be used to treat large areas of land swiftly.
However, according to a Telegraph report published in November 2019, only two crop-spraying planes were operational in Pakistan, out of a total of 21. Since an aircraft tasked with spraying pesticide to eliminate locusts crashed in Cholistan’s Tillo Bangla area in Sadiqabad tehsil on January 12, 2020, only one is left now.
According to Dr Anjum, 10 to 15 aeroplanes are required immediately to spray unsettled areas of Balochistan, Sindh and the Punjab. “Spring season brings favourable conditions for desert locust breeding. We need planes to cover vast areas of desert lands in Balochistan, Sindh and the Punjab. For this purpose, we have officially requested the Chinese government to provide us with aeroplanes. Renting them is an option too.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a fixed-wing drone, capable of flying up to 100km, is a possible solution. It will allow ground teams to cover much larger areas and also access sand dunes and insecure zones.
“Using drones for control will minimise risks to humans and make operations more effective and safer for the environment, leading to a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides,” says Azeem Khan Niazi. “But the use of drones for agricultural sprays is not allowed in Pakistan.”
Pesticide companies, like Bayer, have the resources and technical expertise to deal with the early detection and eradication of locusts. Ideally, “a major proportion of nomadic bands should be sprayed with insecticide before the swarming phase is reached,” he adds.
Dr Anjum says that introducing legislation on drone use would help. “A national action plan to combat the desert locusts has been announced. Rs7.2 billion has been allocated for the purpose. We have the ability to eliminate this outbreak. But for best results every province and the federal government must perform.”
Pakistan Army has stepped in to prevent the swarm of locusts along the border areas from becoming a hazard by using their equipment to spray pesticides.