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Locusts: The other catastrophe

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While Pakistan, like much of the rest of the world, is busy fighting COVID-19 pandemic, another catastrophe looms large on the country’s horizon, threatening livelihoods and food security of a large segment of its poor population.
This threat comes from large swarms of locusts attacking vast spreads of land mainly in southern half of the country. Though seemingly contained for now, the flying insects are actually waiting to multiply into millions – perhaps hundreds of millions – as the new reproductive season sets in.
The ongoing locusts attack witnessed in four South-West Asian countries – Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan – is the worst such attack recorded after 1993, say the experts. Overall, several countries from East Africa to Middle East to South Asia are under devastating attack of these tiny yet devastating creatures. It is now emerging that foe East Africa, the danger is of huge scale.
In case of Pakistan, 21 districts of three provinces – Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab – have come under attack in recent months, of which 13 districts are severally affected. Overall, 60% of total cultivated area in Balochistan, 25% in Sindh, and 15% in Punjab became vulnerable to locusts attacks; but as of now it seems that damages remained by and large under control.
Overall losses have not been assessed in monetary terms so far, but Sindh says about a million acres have come under attack of which some 80% is desert area; former federal minister for food security Khusro Bakhtyar says that 20 million acres is ‘vulnerable’ but he adds that much of it is in Balochistan, so, not really the main crop-producing area.
However, still, the loss already runs into billions of rupees and more importantly affecting the livelihoods of thousands of poor families.
Here is something more important is to note: while due to efforts by three provincial governments as well as federal government – mainly ground and aerial sprays – the swarms of locusts have by and large been controlled for now; but, experts have found that that a large number of eggs have been laid by locusts in vast areas of the three provinces which will start reproducing, this spring onwards. Reproduction will multiply in July to December period, so, coming cotton and maize crops will also be severely threatened.
So far, the two provinces of Sindh and Punjab alone have reportedly procured large quantities of pesticides and have sprayed through hand-held sprayers, vehicle-mounted sprayers, 3 airplanes and 5 helicopters. One airplane unfortunately crashed during the spraying operations as well, in South Punjab.
A few major efforts to control this large-scale locusts’ attack have been overshadowed by outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis. An eight-member delegation of experts from China visited Pakistan in February, and assessed the situation in affected areas in addition to meeting with provincial and federal relevant authorities in Pakistan. Chinese ambassador also held a meeting on this issue with the then federal minister for food security and research.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN also held a meeting in Islamabad of officials of four countries (Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan) which is known as South-West Asia Commission for Control of Locust. FAO has also prepared an App, named as E-Locust3, to gather data on the ground.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also held a video-link conference with Chief Ministers of Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan, on this issue, on March 7. Federal ministry of food security and research has also prepared a National Action Plan to fight this menace, allocating Rs.7.2 billion for the purpose. Republic of Korea has pledged to aid Pakistan with $2,00,000.
It all signals that despite the gravity of COVID-19 linked situation, Pakistan, regional countries as well as international institutions are taking this attack and its looming threat very seriously.
What is needed for Pakistan? China has already agreed to provide required technical training to Pakistani officials and experts for the purpose. Experts estimate that Pakistan needs 10 to 15 special purpose planes for this looming threat; China has been requested to provide planes at official level while hiring of planes for such operation from China and/or other countries is also an option.
Pakistan is also short of both hand-held sprayers and vehicle-mounted sprayers. It is said that production and distribution of such sprayers is heavily concentrated in the hands of one British company. Pesticides to kill the flying and attacking insects are in ample supply so far, but if the attack increases these may have to be imported, too. Pakistan has also told FAO that FAO App E-Locust3 that works on special devices, Pakistan has 30 such devices and needs some 70 more.
Fighting a pandemic such as COVID-19 indeed is a priority for Pakistan, just as for much of the world. Yet, at the same time this danger of locusts hovering over the horizon should not be taken lightly and effective measures, at federal and provincials level, are need of the hour.