Pakistan's locust challenge, food security and livelihood

21 districts in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab badly affected  by locust attacks

The farmers in many districts of Pakistan are struggling to combat the worst locust plague in nearly three decades.  The locust attacks have badly affected 21 districts in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab. On Pakistan declared national emergency on February 01 to tackle the insects destroying crops on a large scale in Sindh and Punjab provinces. Both provinces produce the major chunk of country’s agriculture production.
Agriculture accounts for nearly 19% of Pakistan's GDP and employed nearly 43% work force.In Balochistan province 40% labourforce is employed in agriculture. Overwhelming majority in rural Sindh and South Punjab is engaged in agriculture. So crisis in agriculture not only means the problem of  food security but also the livelihood.
 Small farmers entirely dependent on their crops and agriculture produce to live on. Their livelihood is in danger. The pest damage could further cut agriculture growth. The agriculture sector has already experiencing slowdown in last few years. They are facing a serious crisis.
The urban population was facing the COVID-19 pandemic which is spreading at fast pace in last few days. More than 92,000 people have been infected while 1900 died so far. The government’s attention was focused on the coronavirus when locust plague started to affect many rural areas. The rural population is now facing another plague in the form of locust infestation.

The loss of crop means a loss of income for farmers.  The small farmers suffer the most as the result of a crisis in agriculture. Many farmers feared that if the situation prevails it would finish all cash crops, animals' fodders and fruits like it did with wheat crop in Sindh province. The locust insects have been playing havoc with crops in Pakistan since last year.
The desert locust plague affected Sindh province last year before moving to the rest parts of the country. One official in the agriculture department told media that it is a prominent threat and it has spread like a virus because it has already reached to 15 districts in Punjab province. Another dangerous thing is that now the temperature is increasing and their eggs will be hatched and their population will increase manifolds.
According to the country's food security ministry, the locusts has imposed a loss of 15 percent to the winter-sown crops last year amounting to at least 100 billion rupees (some 625.7 million U.S. dollars), with fears that the damage would be huge if the next generation hatched.
In a recent report, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has warned of a huge level locust invasion in Pakistan if it is not controlled efficiently because locust breeding is taking place at 38 percent of the country's total area supported by suitable weather.
This year’s locust infestation is a continuation of 2019's outbreak in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia, which is said to be the worst in decades.
In a report prepared recently for Pakistan, the FAO has warned of a locust invasion. "Iran and Pakistan are especially prone as locust breeding is taking place in these areas, also due to the wet winter this year. In Pakistan, 38% of the area (60% in Balochistan, 25% in Sindh and 15% in Punjab) are breeding grounds for the desert locust, whereas the entire country is under the threat of invasion if the desert locust is not contained in the breeding regions."

To give an idea of the scale of the destruction these pests can unleash, the report’s worst-case forecast predicted "severe damage" in areas where major rabbi (winter-sown) crops like wheat, chickpea, and oilseeds grow. Losses to agriculture could reach Rs 205 billion ($ 1.3 billion), considering a damage level of 15% to the production of wheat, gram and potato alone. At a 25% level of damage, the FAO estimates total potential losses of about Rs 353 billion for the rabbi crops, and about Rs 464 billion for kharif (summer-sown) crops.
The report has also pointed out that" In the midst of additional impacts by Covid-19 on health, livelihoods and food security and nutrition of the most vulnerable communities and populations of Pakistan, it is imperative to contain and control successfully the Desert Locust infestation."
The first, as reported by farmers in Balochistan, is from local breeding, which is taking place due to the remnants of last year’s infestation, which damaged around 40% of the crop in Sindh.
Prior to that, the locusts were restricted to the Cholistan desert in Punjab or Thar in Sindh in the summer seasons. But last year, they migrated to other cultivated areas of Sindh and Punjab as well as the northern regions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which had never heard of this pest before. They have developed new routes and have even entered Afghanistan.
Heavy rains and cyclones sparked "unprecedented" breeding and the explosive growth of locust populations on the Arabian Peninsula early last year, according to the United Nations. The insects have since fanned out and wreaked havoc on farms from East Africa to India before making their way into Pakistan from the desert on the country's southwestern border with Iran.

The changes in the weather patterns as the result of climate change and global warming also contribute in the spread of locust.  One of the less visible impacts of climate change is how it will alter the dynamics of pest spread and reproduction. So, while desert locusts are an age-old threat, we fear something is changing.
China has helped Pakistan and provided pesticides, spraying machines and technical support in the efforts to control the locust plague. Pakistan Army is also using helicopters and drones to spray the crops. 
Lot needs to be donne to control the situation. Pakistan cannot afford the shortage of wheat and other food crops as the result of locust attacks. The food prices are already increasing. Both the farmers and urban consumers will suffer if the crisis deepens and government failed to control the spread of locust. 
                                                                        Khalid Bhatti  

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