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Pakistan Reader# 129, 25 August 2020

The Locust Problem in Pakistan:

The first two waves were bad. The third one will be worse

Pakistan may not be completely prepared to absorb the ill effects of the third wave of locusts, but the experience during the first two waves and the important lessons learnt will help it fight better

Rashmi BR


Desert locust swarms are an annual sight in Pakistan. Favourable weather conditions during monsoons facilitate large-scale breeding of locusts. However, the locust invasion of 2019-20 is different, particularly in terms of severity. First two waves of locusts proved disastrous, but the third wave will be much more severe, according to the experts. 

The Locust threat in Pakistan in 2020

Pakistan, at present, is waging a two-front war against COVID-19 and the locusts simultaneously. The current locust incursion, which came much before COVID-19, began in June 2019, with large swarms coming from Iran. They entered Baluchistan and subsequently to Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Considered as the worst in 30 years, it is the first wave of infestation in Pakistan. Since then, the local breeding of the locusts has begun in the desert regions of the country (Hassan Naqvi, “The locusts are back with a vengeance, and we’ve been caught unawares. Again.,” Pakistan Today, 16 August 2020).

The second wave began in the initial days of 2020 and continued through late May, when new swarms from East Africa and West Asia entered Pakistan, in addition to the already existing ones. The scientists now warn of a third wave and a re-invasion of the locusts from India. Re-invasion technically implies that the swarms that have travelled from Pakistan to India will travel back after completing the breeding cycles. The large breeding grounds in Rajasthan and Gujarat have emerged as major concerns for Pakistan. 

Climate change is the primary reason for the locust infestation of 2019-20 to be unseasonal, abnormal and more severe when compared to previous years. Indian Ocean Dipole (oscillation of the sea surface temperature and lack of balance between the temperatures of western and eastern parts of the Indian Ocean) caused two severe cyclones Luban and Mekunu, in Yemen and Oman respectively. Cyclones and the following incessant rains in parts of West Asia and East Africa led to the creation of water bodies in the deserts, which became the breeding grounds for desert locusts. Yemen, being a war-torn nation, failed to control the swarms, which later reached Pakistan and India via Iran. 

Desert locusts have caused severe damage to the economy, food security and livelihood of the farmers. In many areas in Sindh, farmers have not sowed seeds despite good rains, fearing the invasion of locusts (Manesh Kumar, “Locust threat forces farmers in Thar desert to keep land fallow,” Dawn, 22 August 2020).

The third wave will be worse

Pakistan seemed unprepared for the first wave of the locust swarms, despite warnings from the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) (Hassan Naqvi, “The locusts are back with a vengeance, and we’ve been caught unawares. Again,” Pakistan Today, 16 August 2020). Islamabad lacks competent early warning systems and is heavily dependent on external institutions like FAO. Unpreparedness proved costly for Pakistan, due to which the second wave caused widespread destruction. 

The third wave of incoming locusts will be worse for a country whose economy is already battered by COVID-19. Government and its institutions are focusing upon the need to control the pandemic and manage its long-lasting impact. Irrespective of the pandemic, Pakistan’s economy is on the brink, with Balance of Payment crisis, poverty and unemployment looming large. The locusts pose a grave threat to the agricultural sector and food security, leading to a further increase in hunger and poverty. The FAO had warned about a “potential serious food security crisis”, highlighting the need for better preparedness “Alarm over Desert Locusts increases as new generation of the destructive pests starts breeding in Horn of Africa,” Food and Agriculture Organization, 29 January 2020)

Experts and leaders of the opposition have criticized the PTI government for the lack of swift response. As mentioned previously, the locust invasion was a problem even before the pandemic cemented in Pakistan. The government, however, chose to not take the issue seriously until the swarms affected all the four provinces. This was also one of the reasons for the farmers to take steps at the individual level, to drive the swarms. But they certainly fail to tackle the large numbers of locusts. 

The clear lack of coordination between the federal government and the provinces has aggravated the problem and has given space for mismanagement. The provinces approached the federal government for help, only to get a delayed response. The face-off is more evident in the case of Sindh, which also has a different political party at power at the provincial level. Sindh's Minister for Agriculture criticized the government for its "disinterest" in managing the problem. Similar sentiments were echoed in Punjab (Hassan Naqvi, "The locusts are back with a vengeance, and we’ve been caught unawares. Again,” Pakistan Today, 16 August 2020).

While “disinterest” has taken a toll, ignorant remarks from leaders have also inflicted damage. Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research, Syed Fakhar Imam stated that the situation has been under control, as only two regions are currently affected by the desert locusts, particularly Tharparkar in Sindh. And, Tharpakar being a desert area, there is nearly no threat to the crops. However, the statement ignores the fact that swarms travel from the desert areas to others, and will prove costly if they are not controlled at the deserts. 

The government has engaged multiple agencies to work towards controlling the locust invasion- the Department of Plant Protection, National Locust Control Centre (NLCC), Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission of Pakistan (SUPARCO), and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). The opposition criticized the government's move to involve NDMA in managing the locust issue. They lack institutional experience as well as equipment in tackling locust swarms. Being a civilian issue, Pakistan chose to involve a military-linked agency, once again mixing civilian-military responsibilities. 

Are there lessons learnt?

The pesticide is the primary tool to tackle the locust attack. But there are two concerns regarding this- first, the quality of pesticides. Are these capable of annihilating a mammoth population of pests? Second, many farmers are not in favour of using strong pesticides, as it would not spare even grass from toxicity. Further, using them in thickly populated regions would put the air, water bodies and people's health at risk.

As an attempt to find a solution, Pakistan is trying to use biopesticides with environmentally friendly fungi. Some labs are also working on developing parasitoids that can eliminate locusts at embryonic, hopper and adult stages. Though time-consuming and a slow process, it is one of the best solutions. In few places, the locusts are being collected by the farmers during night times, when they are generally immobile and sending them to processing units to convert them into chicken feed (Zofeen T. Ebrahim, “Can Pakistan go beyond chemical pesticides for locust control?,” thethirdpole.net, 21 August 2020). 

The establishment of the National Locust Control Centre (NLCC) is itself a lesson learnt by Pakistan in its fight against the locusts. Established in May, during the second wave of the invasion, NLCC looks into a warning, monitoring and surveying. 

Initiating Locust Emergency and Food Security project (LEAFS) is a welcome move. On 7 August, the Development Working Party gave a green signal to the project. This will be the first federal agricultural project funded by the World Bank. It emphasizes on the need for the federal government to take a tough stance on an agricultural crisis such as this (Ghulam Abbas, “ WB approves $400m to help Pakistan combat locusts, reopen schools,” Pakistan Today, 3 August 2020)

Pakistan may not be completely prepared to absorb the ill effects of the third wave of locusts, but the experience during the first two waves and the important lessons learnt will help it fight better.

About the author

Rashmi BR is a PhD scholar with the Science Diplomacy Programme, School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Her research interests include environment and climate change, the geopolitics of the Arctic region, maritime security and governance of maritime domain and India’s foreign policy.