The locust emergency

March 15, 2020

With locust swarms expected to multiply in the coming months, Pakistan is not only looking at local solutions but is also collaborating with international partners

As Pakistan faces a severe threat of swarms of desert locusts in several parts of the country in coming months authorities are working on multiple local and international collaborations to deal with this challenge.

Other than seeking help from China and talking to some other countries for logistical assistance, the authorities are also working on plans to use desert locust to make poultry feed by engaging local communities to catch them.

This is the severest desert swarm plague in Pakistan since 1993 and it is feared to remain a threat over coming months due to breeding amid climate change and increase in humidity. This migratory desert locust lands in Pakistan via Iran. It begins its travel from Africa and reaches Iran via Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. These locusts then further spread to Rajasthan desert in India and in some parts of Afghanistan according to wind directions and the climate situation.

In February this year, Pakistan declared a national emergency in response to the arrival of these swarms. The desert locusts arrived in Pakistan from Iran last June and have already affected cotton, wheat, maize and other crops in parts of Sindh and the Punjab. Since then Pakistan has been struggling to control these swarms ultimately seeking help from China and some other countries and thinking on multiple ways to deal with the problem.

Government officials also did an experiment in the Punjab offering local communities to catch these desert locusts at 20 rupees per kilogram and selling them to the poultry feed industry. In the pilot project, initiated by a senior official of the ministry of National Food Security and Research in Okara, local government authorities collected four tonnes of locusts through locals and sold them to poultry feed industry.

“This was a pilot project and ran for three to four days only. The government is seriously working on these lines and Pakistan Agriculture Research Council and a private company are independently doing some research on it. As per reports, a locust contains 76 percent crude protein,” Dr Falak Naz, the director general of the Plant Protection Department and one of the focal persons on the issue of desert locust tells The News on Sunday. He says efforts are underway to explore multiple avenues to control locusts and engage communities giving them some incentives. He says, as per reports, this locust can be used to make high quality feed for poultry and pets. “It is also said to be halal. In some Muslim countries people eat it,” he says while referring to this popular statement of a minister of Sindh government urging people to eat these locusts after cooking them with rice. Dr Naz says the pilot project had appeared so lucrative that one family, led by a woman, had earned Rs21,000 in three days by catching a lot of insects.

The government also considered the option of buying Chinese ducks that eat locust but this plan did not prove viable because the locusts in Pakistan are of desert variety while the locusts found in China are a local variety; additionally, it is difficult for the government to transport and keep these ducks in desert areas.

China is extending generous help to Pakistan in dealing with the desert locust swarms; it intends to donate 300,000 liters Malathion ULV spray and to help Pakistan in establishing and improving a comprehensive pest control system and effectively improve its ability to prevent and control biological disasters. Pakistan is also trying to seek help from South Korea to get some logistical support to control desert locusts.

Heavy rains and climate change have caused unprecedented breeding of desert locusts, and at this time their breeding zone is in Balochistan. “We fear a serious threat because of this breeding and have evolved a national action plan involving all provinces, security agencies and stakeholders,” Dr Naz says, adding, “All stakeholders on board this time and more than 60 teams have been constituted to deal with this issue.” He says that Pakistan needs big vehicles for spray and for aerial spray plans are also underway to use army helicopters. As an experiment, equipment is installed on an army helicopter for effective aerial spray. “We face a serious threat of desert locust swarms in June/July. Climate change has helped their breeding. Continuous efforts and comprehensive planning are underway,” he adds.

This time an extraordinary situation has developed because of climate change and because these swarms were overlooked in May 2018 in Saudi Arabia. From Pakistan, the swarms have spread to in parts of India and Afghanistan. While, this plague faced 400 percent increase in Somalia and 20 percent in Iran while, there are fears of fast breeding in Pakistan due to increase in duration of humid/rainy weather. The Ministry of National Food Security and Research and provincial agricultural departments have also decided to strengthen the national action plan to combat locust attacks in all the four provinces.

The writer is a staff member and can be reached at [email protected]

The locust emergency in Pakistan