Government ‘on a war footing,’ as locust swarms enter southern Punjab

Government ‘on a war footing,’ as locust swarms enter southern Punjab
A member of the FAO with a locust at a camp in Madagascar. The FAO uses insecticides to reduce the threat of swarms of the voracious feeders, which can eat their own body weight in a day. (AFP)
Updated 04 August 2019

Government ‘on a war footing,’ as locust swarms enter southern Punjab

Government ‘on a war footing,’ as locust swarms enter southern Punjab
  • The next three months of rainfall are crucial in controlling locust swarms from spreading, experts say
  • Pakistan’s prize cotton crop is still safe from locust swarms

LAHORE – Swarms of yellow locusts that have since March been devastating crops in Pakistan’s southwestern and southern provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, have entered southern Punjab’s Cholistan desert as officials scramble to contain the risk to the country’s cotton cash crop.
Desert locusts, swarming short-horned grasshoppers who can eat twice their body weight in a day, have been destroying crops in Africa and Asia for centuries. Their ability to move in huge swarms with great speed has earned them notoriety as one of the most devastating agricultural plagues in the world. 
From the Red Sea coast of Sudan and Eritrea, the locusts first emerged in January this year. By February, they had hit Saudi Arabia and Iran before entering Balochistan province in March. 
“The locusts hit Bijnot and Mandi Yazman in Cholistan desert area but were controlled,” Dr. Riaz Hussain, head of Punjab’s Locusts Control Cell, told Arab News on Saturday.
For over a month, authorities have been involved in efforts to control the locust swarms, which includes the emergency deployment of aircraft and pesticide-mounted vehicles.
The emergency pesticide deployment is not unwarranted. If un-contained, the locusts will attack Pakistan’s prize cotton crop which runs the country’s textile industry- its largest job provider and foreign exchange earner. As the country struggles to stave off a balance of payments’ crisis following a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, it cannot afford to lose its cotton, which is already forecast to fall to a 17 year low according to official data. 
So far, more than 8,000 hectares of land in Pakistan has been treated with pesticides to battle the locusts, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Officials say the locusts have not yet bred, but with adequate rainfall in the monsoon season which kicks off in August, they could lay eggs and multiply to form even larger swarms before turning toward cultivated areas in search of food.
“The threat is continuing as the next three months from August to October provide the right weather for the hatching of locusts,” Hussain said.
Senior officials said a minor stray swarm of locusts entered Kandera Toba, a small place in the Cholistan from Indian Rajasthan, but was neutralized before emerging again in August.
According to the FAO, locust numbers will increase further from widespread hatching in India “and the second generation of breeding in Pakistan, giving rise to additional hopper bands in August and adult swarms in September.”
India has also issued warnings to its farmers and according to reports in Indian media, this is the first locust attack in Rajasthan in twenty-six years. 
On Thursday, Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar held a meeting to review different preventative measures being taken to avoid locust attacks and ordered surveillance and aerial spraying. 
“The agricultural department is in contact with the federal government in this regard and control rooms have been established at central and district levels to monitor the situation round-the-clock. The department officials have been directed to deal with the matter on a war footing,” Punjab Agriculture Minister, Nauman Iqbal Langarial, told Arab News.
According to Dr. Riaz Hussain, 158 teams have been formed and equipped with the necessary tools, and extra vehicles have been provided to mobile teams. A federal government air-craft is also ready for Punjab government’s disposal to use when needed, he said.
Though Punjab’s cotton-growing areas are still safe, the government and farmers are in a tight race against time before the monsoon rains cause the insects to start breeding.
“We are taking all-out measures to save the farmers. So far, the locusts have hit the desert area and green area is safe. We are vigilant as the next three months are very crucial,” Hussain said.
The last major locust infestations in Pakistan were back in 1993 and 1997, though the government lacks credible statistics to quantify the damage in both instances