A plague of locusts

In Pakistan’s Sindh province a locust outbreak has persisted due to favourable weather conditions caused by climate change, devastating crops over a wide area
<p>Hordes of locusts have darkened the skies in Sindh [image by: Manoj Genani]</p>

Hordes of locusts have darkened the skies in Sindh [image by: Manoj Genani]

As the global community sits in Madrid for COP25 to find ways to limit the average global temperature rise, in the small village of Rahil in Sindh province’s district Umerkot, 28-year-old Mohammad Faiz’s crops of millet, lond bean and mung (a type of lentils) have been completely devoured by desert locusts.

The locust calamity comes on the heels of Germanwatch’s 2020 report (presented at the climate conference), with its Global Climate Risk Index placing Pakistan fifth on the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change.

“Countries like Haiti, Philippines and Pakistan are repeatedly hit by extreme weather events and have no time to fully recover. That underlines the importance of reliable financial support mechanisms for poor countries like these not only in climate change adaptation, but also for dealing with climate-induced loss and damage,” said David Eckstein of Germanwatch.

“The current locust outbreak was unanticipated, and was initially expected to subside by mid-November. However, the outbreak has persisted due to favourable weather conditions, caused by climate change, for the locusts to breed,” read a statement shared with by the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Pakistan office.

“The situation is extremely serious,” admitted Tariq Khan, technical director at the Ministry of National Food Security and Research’s Department of Plant Protection (DPP).

“The issue urgently requires dedicated surveillance followed by detecting the sites of their settlements as well as immediate targeted control by ground vehicles or aircraft with minimum response time,” he said.

Khan said the DPP had been developing a contingency plan every year in consultation with the FAO. “But this year, the existing experience of desert locust activity was unprecedented,” he said, attributing it to climate change that “prolonged the breeding season”. The last time the country experienced such a huge swarm was in 1993.

“The wrath of Gad”

Faiz said that the village cleric had told them the huge swarms blocking the sunlight were the wrath of God. This was the second such attack by this flying army and, according to the young farmer, the numbers were much higher than the previous round in August to October.

FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer, Kieth Cressman, said locusts increase 20-fold every generation, which equates to roughly 8,000 times the number of locusts compared to the beginning.

In search of food, locusts travel in swarms of between 30 to 50 million) and can cover a distance of 150 kilometres to devour 200 tonnes of food in a day, Khan said.

Cressman blamed the “current emergency” on climate change and said three weather events contributed to it. “It is well known under climate change scenarios that such extreme weather events will become more frequent,” he predicted.

“The situation developed as a result of two cyclones that brought heavy rains in May and October 2018 to the southeastern portion of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Empty Quarter. As a result, breeding conditions for locusts remained favourable for more than nine months, which is sufficient for three generations of locusts to occur,” explained the FAO spokesperson.

Weather conditions extended the breeding time for locusts, allowing for three generations [image by: Manoj Genani]
Manoj Genani, a documentary filmmaker and photographer, who is currently visiting Umerkot from the adjoining district of Tharparkar, believed that weather may have played a part in the breeding of locusts. “Usually we equate the festival of Diwali in Sindh with the onset of winter; but there is no sign of winter here except last week when it became slightly nippy just for two days in the day time,” he said.

After following and documenting the trail of locusts, Genani found the sight and sound of this “pink army” mesmerising but said he is saddened by the plunder in the wake and the huge swathes of destroyed farmland.

Hordes of locusts have darkened the skies in Sindh [image by: Manoj Genani]
Hordes of locusts have darkened the skies in Sindh [image by: Manoj Genani]
With a focus on transboundary issues that affect other countries, the FAO, for its part, has been building the technical capacity of the officials from the line departments. But it has clearly not been enough according to local farmers. The sector specialist at FAO Pakistan office, Shakeel Ahmed, said that the DPP suffered from a severe human resources crisis.

No crop survives for man or beast

For many in Faiz’s village, the setback is twofold. Along with their crops, the hoppers have not even spared the food of their livestock.

“Our family has about 40 goats and four camels. We prepare fodder from the waste of the crops, and that is no more. The locusts have not even spared the grass and leaves of trees in the grazing ground,” said Faiz.

He calculated that his animals consumed approximately 3,700 kilograms of fodder in a year.

“The price of one maund (37 kg) of fodder is PKR 1,000 (USD 6.5) and this is bound to shoot up now,” he said forlornly, adding, “It means the food for these animals will have to be rationed.”

The crops of local farmers have been devastated [image by: Manoj Genani]
With no crops to harvest, he plans to leave for the sea port of Karachi hoping to find work as his two older brothers are already there, to make ends meet.

‘Sheer negligence’    

Zahid Bhurgari, general secretary of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture —the biggest farmers’ organisation in Sindh province — refuses to believe the calamity has anything to do with climate change. He terms it “utter negligence” on the part of the government.

“We told the government back in May when the problem first surfaced that we were sitting on a time bomb; they did nothing,” he lashed out angrily.

Bhurgari also warned of an impending food security and sky rocketing prices of flour soon. “With wheat cultivated in Sindh over 2.840 million acres and production at 3.5 million metric tons, the locusts have destroyed upto 22,000 acres of land where the crop was grown. We see no abating,” he said.

He said the swarms circling the sky show the futile plans of the government.

But Cressman explained the difficulty in preventing egg-laying and hatching by the initial swarms that invade because of the small window “to find and treat all infestations”.

“It is also difficult to find and treat all subsequent generations of egg-laying and hatching because locusts are often in very remote, inaccessible and sensitive areas (such as international frontiers),” he added.

Bhurgari, however, remained convinced that it was the half-hearted attempts by the authorities that caused the damage. “Just two days back I called up the relevant authorities to find out about aerial spraying plans. I was told they had the aircraft but without fuel or pesticide! This is the reality; it seems the government is non-existent,” said the incensed farmer.

Khan insisted things were in control. “Being toxic in nature, spraying has to be carried out with utmost care otherwise it can harm humans as well as animals,” he said. “Ultra Low Volume (ULV) pesticide formulations are required for desert areas but because they can cause crop burning, emulsifiable concentrates (EC) of pesticides are recommended in cropping areas,” he explained.

Locust researcher Aftab Jarwar agrees that injudicious use of chemical spray would prove more harmful for the environment, and said that biological agents (like metarhizium anisopliae spp) and entomopathogenic fungi can help control locust breeding without threatening the ecosystem.

He said this method was used elsewhere in the world and could have been administered in the infested area in Pakistan. “These are selective and only kill the locusts without harming humans, animals or crops.”

The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing (from where Jarwar had completed his doctoral thesis on integrated pest management earlier this year) had offered help, he said. “I wrote to our agriculture minister twice about the help from the Chinese, but did not get any response, so I gave up,” he said.

See: a plague of locusts