Plague amid Pandemic: Locusts have Arrived

By: Vijay Sakhuja
Locust swarms originating in Pakistan have been making landfall in India since February this year. First, Punjab reported a small locust swarm of about three to four km long and about one km wide area and it was quickly eliminated using insecticides. In March, the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change warned that the locust swarm from Pakistan had entered Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh threatening major damage to standing cotton crops and vegetables urging states to adopt various means to respond to the swarms (The New Indian Express 2020a). Several districts in Rajasthan adjoining Pakistan (Bundi, Sikar, Pratapgarh and Chittorgarh) reported presence of locusts in farmlands. Last year, Rajasthan recorded agriculture losses of about INR 10,000 million due to the locust invasion after 670,000 hectares of cropland in 12 districts was damaged (Goswami 2020).
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The ongoing locust invasion prompted the Indian government to reach out to Pakistan for a coordinated locust control response along the border through the institutionalised mechanism of Locust Warning Organisation and offered to supply pesticide Malathion to contain its spread. Both neighbours have an institutionalised arrangement under which locusts related information is exchanged by respective Locust Officers on either side.

The locust challenge comes at a time when the region is battling against Covid-19 pandemic and it is harvest time in the Punjab regions of both sides. While the Novel Corona Virus is invisible, the locust swarms are seen to be believed, and when ‘crowded together they become gregarious mini-beasts’ (BBC 2020). In fact it is a double whammy of Covid-19 and locusts for some countries and the swarms have descended on standing crops particularly in South Asia. The United Nations has warned that locust invasion could adversely impact food supply with huge economic losses.

During the last six months, locust swarms have been reported in East Africa and West Asia-South Asia. In East Africa, towards the end of 2019, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia were the hot spots but swarms continued to spread in smaller numbers as far as Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania. According to the United Nations, the swarms could become 400 times bigger by June 2020 (Stone 2020). Ethiopia is the worst hit and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has noted that the insects ‘devoured about 200,000 hectares of cropland and more than a million hectares of pasture’ which would affect one million people in the country (Byaruhanga 2020).

In the West and South Asia region, Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan are prone to locust invasions. Last year, even Oman reported a locust infestation. In particular, Iran and Pakistan are breeding areas (Mansoor 2020). This year, due to wet winter in Pakistan, 38 per cent of the area (60 per cent in Balochistan, 25 per cent in Sindh and 15 per cent in Punjab) are significant breeding sources of the desert locust (Dowlatchahi et al. 2020).

In March 2020, Pakistan’s food security department stated that nearly 38 per cent of the country’s 30 million hectares of land was under a locust infestation and the country is constrained to fight the locusts due to its limited resources; its fleet of 20 aircraft to spray pesticides were depleted and only three were operational to cover over 20,000 acres of land (Raza 2020). China came to the rescue supplying pesticides and associated spraying equipment (The Express Tribune 2020). Besides, a delegation of Chinese experts surveyed the locust-affected areas and suggested comprehensive measures to prevent and control the disaster.

Locust breeding grounds are in the Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula and Afghanistan-Pakistan and invasion by these insects is a perennial problem. There are at least two corridors through which locusts migrate from the Horn of Africa. The overland corridor passes over Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India. The second corridor is over the Arabian Sea-northern Indian Ocean and this can stretch as far as Bangladesh through central-peninsular India.

Interestingly, the cyclonic activity in the Indian Ocean also acts as a catalyst. According to FAO’s senior Locust forecaster Keith Cressman “in the past three years there was an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean that played a role in breeding this current upsurge,” Furthermore, according to Cressman, “Locusts breed fast (Jitendra 2020). The first breeding causes a 20-time increase in number; the second a 400-time rise; and the third 16,000 times.” Similarly, Shakeel Khan, sector specialist for FAO Pakistan has observed that “Global warming has extended the locusts’ breeding period, which has led to damage of an unprecedented scale” (Kato and Baba 2020). This is further compounded by “civil war and meager state coffers have severely undercut the ability of authorities to engage in pest control” (ibid.).

At another level, the Indian government has suggested a trilateral response involving India, Iran and Pakistan. Given that the locust invasion is a plague that transcends continents, regions and countries, it is worth exploring the issue under the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), an umbrella organisation of 22 Indian Ocean littoral states across Africa, Asia and Australia, of which at least eight are or likely to be impacted by the locust invasion.

Locusts have presently reached the west part of India, particularly regions in Maharashtra, prompting the state administration to urgently resort to spraying insecticides as a control measure. Maharashtra Agriculture Minister Dada Bhuse, confirmed that fire brigades were deployed to spray insecticides and that they have successfully managed to eradicate 50 per cent of the locusts that swarmed the regions (The New Indian Express 2020b).

References

  • BBC. 2020. How a Single Locust Becomes a Plague, May 5. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-84994842-8967-4dfd-9490-10f805de9f68
  • Byaruhanga C. 2020. How Do You Fight a Locust Invasion Amid Coronavirus, BBC, April 25. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52394888
  • Dowlatchahi M., M. Ahmed and K, Cressman. 2020. Desert Locust Situation in Pakistan, Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. Available at: http://www.fao.org/pakistan/resources/in-depth/desert-locust-situation-in-pakistan/en/
  • Goswami R. 2020. Reach of Locusts Wider Due to Lack of Crops, Hindustan times, May 21. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/reach-of-locusts-wider-due-to-lack-of-crops/story-9SFlw3ZkrLMqCtEoPh4AyI.html
  • Jitendra. 2020. Locust Attack: ‘This is Very, Very Rare’, Down to Earth, February 4. Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/interviews/climate-change/locust-attack-this-is-very-very-rare–68992
  • Kato S. and M. Baba. 2020. Locust Swarms Form Dark Clouds Over South Asia food security, Nikkei Asian Review, March 4. Available at: https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Society/Locust-swarms-form-dark-clouds-over-South-Asia-food-security
  • Mansoor Z. 2020. Swarms of Locusts Invade Oman, Gulf Business, February 11. Available at: https://gulfbusiness.com/swarms-locusts-invade-sultanate-oman/
  • Raza S. I. 2020. National Emergency Declared Against Locusts, Dawn, February 1. Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1531824
  • Stone M. 2020. Hundreds of Billions of Locusts, Fueled by Conflict and Climate Change, are Swarming East Africa – 400-fold Increase in Their Numbers by June 2020 Projected, Desdemona Despair, February 14. Available at: https://desdemonadespair.net/2020/02/hundreds-of-billions-of-locusts-fueled-by-conflict-and-climate-change-are-swarming-east-africa-400-fold-increase-in-their-numbers-by-june-2020-projected.html
  • The Express Tribune. 2020. China sends additional aid to help Pakistan decimate locusts, April 30. Available at: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2210179/2-china-sends-additional-aid-help-pakistan-decimate-locusts/
  • The New Indian Express. 2020a. Locusts from Pakistan Enter Indian States, Threaten Standing Crops, May 22. Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/22/locusts-from-pakistan-enter-indian-states-threaten-standing-crops-2146761.html
  • The New Indian Express. 2020b. Around 50 per cent locust swarms killed in Maharashtra, says state Agriculture Minister, May 29. Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/29/around-50-per-cent-locust-swarms-killed-in-maharashtra-says-state-agriculture-minister-2149540.html

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