Can India and Pakistan team up to ward off locust attack? | Pakistan Today

Can India and Pakistan team up to ward off locust attack?

Both Pakistan and India are currently under a locust attack. Various means are being adopted to combat the swarms of locusts, which are threatening to destroy crops. The attack in 2020, the worst plague of locusts in 70 years, has already affected East Africa; millions of locusts have now invaded Middle East countries like Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia from the Horn of Africa. People report biblical scenes as giant swarms of locusts are so thick, they darken the sky. The swarm is currently ravaging East Africa. In recent weeks, the insects spread to South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, after having devastated crops throughout Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

The biblical plague has also engulfed Pakistan, India and is approaching the border to China, raising alarm bells. Rarely since the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt has the African continent seen locusts swarming throughout Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda. Pakistan has confirmed that archrival India is proposing a trilateral response in partnership with Iran to fight a crop-killing desert locust invasion, which threatens food security for millions of people across the region. India’s rare offer of cooperation comes amid escalating military tensions with Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region, worsening historically strained relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours. Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson has reiterated that a well-coordinated response is critical to deal with the challenge posed by desert locusts.

The Ministry of National Food Security and Research and provincial agricultural departments have decided to strengthen the national action plan to combat locust attacks in all the four provinces. In a related development, a Chinese technical team is visiting Pakistan to assess the situation. It reviewed the situation of locust-affected districts of Punjab with the Punjab Agriculture Department in Lahore. The team has presented its aerial and ground assessments to the ministry’s officials. The technical team will prepare and submit a comprehensive report to the ministry, based on which the Chinese assistance would be determined. The national action plan will further be strengthened in line with the recommendations of the report.

Pakistan has seen sporadic locust attacks in the past too. In the early 1960s, the locust attack was so severe that the Plant Protection Department had to deploy PAF aircraft modified to spray insecticides aerially to control the locust attack.

Locusts are a collection of certain species of short-horned grasshoppers in the family Acrididae that have a swarming phase. Locusts have formed plagues since prehistory. The ancient Egyptians carved them on their tombs and the insects are mentioned in Homer’s epic Iliad, the Bible and the Quran. Swarms have devastated crops and been a contributory cause of famines and human migrations. More recently, changes in agricultural practices and better surveillance of locations where swarms tend to originate, have meant that control measures can be used at an early stage. The traditional means of control are based on the use of insecticides from the ground or the air, but other methods using biological control are proving effective.

Swarming behaviour decreased in the 20th century, but despite modern surveillance and control methods, the potential for swarms to form is still present, and when suitable climatic conditions occur and vigilance lapses, plagues can still occur. They are also edible insects; they have been eaten throughout history and are considered a delicacy in many countries and halal in Islam.

Teams of locust experts from the two countries meet six times a year to discuss the evolving situation and share information about pest breeding patterns, control strategies and local forecasts. Three of the meetings are held in Pakistan and three in India under a decades-old mutual understanding. Pakistan was “working closely” with regional countries, including India and global partners, particularly the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to address the looming locust threat

Locust attacks in the 21st Century are being attributed to global warming. A major infestation covered much of western Africa in 2003-4, after unusually heavy rain set up favourable ecological conditions for swarming. The first outbreaks occurred in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Sudan in 2003. The rain allowed swarms to develop and move north to Morocco and Algeria, threatening croplands. Swarms crossed Africa, appearing in Egypt, Jordan and Israel, the first time in those countries for 50 years.

In a rare show of camaraderie, the erstwhile hostile neighbours Pakistan and India have held three back-to-back meetings to deal with the one common enemy─ the very intrusive desert locust. Back in 2019, multiple districts of Rajasthan and Gujarat faced huge damage to standing crops. As per reports, there is a forecast of a bigger invasion of even greater magnitude, June onward, if compared to the last year. According to the Agriculture Ministry, it is also predicted that, invasion could occur in scheduled desert area (200,000 sq. km) of India in June 2020 with the advent of the monsoon by spring-bred swarms from southeast Iran, southwest Pakistan and the Horn of Africa that may be of a greater magnitude than last year.

Pakistan has to handle the locust plague on a war footing and get as much help as possible from neighbouring India and China. Pakistan was “working closely” with regional countries, including India and global partners, particularly the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to address the looming locust threat.

The ongoing wider regional cooperation is happening under FAO’s Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in Southwest Asia (SWAC), established in 1964 with Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan as its members.

Under the proposed trilateral response, New Delhi has reportedly suggested to Islamabad that both countries “coordinate locust control operations along the border and that India can facilitate supply of malathion, a pesticide, to Pakistan.”

Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer, has stated that India and Pakistan face an “imminent threat of several waves of spring-bred swarms” from southwest Pakistan and southern Iran. The Hindu quoted Indian officials as saying that Iran has welcomed the offer of pesticide to control desert locusts in the arid Iranian province of South Khorasan and the Sistan-Balochistan province that borders Pakistan. Analysts say the danger posed by the locust attack has apparently pushed New Delhi and Islamabad to set aside mutual differences to increase cooperation to tackle the challenge at a time when both countries are struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite mutual tensions, locust-related cooperation between India and Pakistan has been going on for decades to ensure food security in both countries.

Teams of locust experts from the two countries meet six times a year to discuss the evolving situation and share information about pest breeding patterns, control strategies and local forecasts. Three of the meetings are held in Pakistan and three in India under a decades-old mutual understanding.

Pakistan was “working closely” with regional countries, including India and global partners, particularly the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to address the looming locust threat. The ongoing wider regional cooperation is happening under FAO’s Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in Southwest Asia (SWAC), established in 1964 with Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan as its members.

Sultan M Hali

The author is a retired Group Captain and author of the book Defence & Diplomacy. Currently he is a columnist, analyst and TV talk show host.



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