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Regional initiative for locust infestation


By Salman Parviz, Tehran Times

A trilateral plan among Iran, Pakistan and India is being formulated to address locust swarm infestations that devour crops and threaten the livelihood and sustenance in the region, already struggling with coronavirus pandemic. The desert locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world and a single swarm covering one square kilometer can contain up to 80 million locusts. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said on Friday there was an increased risk along both sides of India-Pakistan border.

India, which was battered by Cyclone Amphan on its east coast, announced that New Delhi is waiting to hear from Islamabad on a proposal for the collaborative action. Iran has already acknowledged and responded to the Indian action plan, which includes an offer to provide pesticide Malathion for aerial spraying to restrain locust populations in southeastern provinces of Sistan-Baluchestan and South Khorasan.

The plan of action was recommended after reports emerged that swarms of the destructive pests were heading towards India after breeding and maturing in Iranian and Pakistani provinces of Baluchistan. In India, more adult groups of small swarms have been reported which have spread into the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh.

Experts say that a larger than normal locust attack could happen this year in India and a plague will give a heavy blow to agriculture, just in time when food security has become paramount.

Iranian agriculture ministry's Plant Protection Organization said the military was called for help last week for a second year to help fight locusts that have invaded the south of the country, threatening to destroy crops worth more than seven billion dollars. The locust swarms also threaten livestock, endangering pastoral communities, and can have an adverse impact on the tourism industry.

A spokesman for the ministry, Mohammad Reza Mir, said more than 200,000 hectares of orchards and farmland have been under attack by desert locusts in seven of the country's 31 provinces.

"The military have promised to help fight the desert locusts, including by providing all-terrain vehicles for use in areas which are hard to access," Mir told ILNA adding that last year the military "was a big help."

Locust swarm in Kerman, Iran

An agreement was signed on March 19, according to which the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations agreed to provide Iran $200,000 and help to procure equipment for the country's two desert locust control centers for capacity building.

"In Pakistan, 38 percent of the area (60 percent in Baluchistan, 25 percent in Sindh and 15 percent in Punjab) are breeding grounds for the desert locust, whereas the entire country is under the threat of invasion if the desert location is not contained in the breeding region," according to an FAO report. The report highlights migration pattern of locust and its potential impact on agricultural economy of Pakistan.

The silver lining is that an already regulated bilateral collaboration between India and Pakistan exists, six regular meetings between India and Pakistan are held every year from June to November.

The FAO report shows that swarms of locusts would be migrating to Pakistan in coming months from southern Iran's border areas of Baluchestan, Oman, and East Africa.

According to the report, the last serious desert locust invasion in the eastern region of Pakistan occurred in 1993. Beginning in mid-2018, some 25 years later, a major upsurge of desert locust developed in the Arabian Peninsula as a result of higher frequency of cyclones originating in the Indian Ocean in 2019, that brought heavy rains to the Empty Quarter (Rub' al Khali) along the borders of Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE and Yemen.

"This year the situation is aggravated as for the first time in many decades, there is a second threat of invasion by swarms in East Africa in late June and during July," the FAO report says.

Regional issue    

Locust swarms is nothing new to East Africa and West Asia, but this year's swarms are expected to be larger than in 2019 because their number increases on average 20-fold with each generation. The locust infestation is the worst in 70 years in East Africa and has affected 23 countries in all.

The insects first swept through Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan in January and February. Now, after those locusts laid eggs, new swarms likely to be 20 times larger were beginning to eat their way through the region.

The World Bank has set up a $500 million program to fight the locust infestation in East Africa and parts of West Asia, which is said to cause economic damage costing $8.5bn this year.

Swarms of locusts, many billions strong, were moving from East Africa to West Asia and South Asia, "decimating livelihoods and devouring food", said David Malpass, President of the World Bank Group, adding the locust swarms threatened a "monumental crisis" and "a humanitarian emergency."

The highly mobile species of short-horned grasshoppers travel in swarms of 30 to 50 million insects, covering a distance of 150 km and devouring up to 200 tons of crops per day.

East Africa's locust swarm threaten food security in an area already under threat from plagues.

A desert locust can eat roughly its weight in fresh food per day (about two grams). A one square kilometer swarm contains at least 40 million locusts, each eats the same amount of food each day as about 35,000 people, based on a person eating an average of 2.3 kilograms of food per day.

Locusts can lay as many as 80 eggs per female, and deposit them at a depth of 10 to 15 centimeters below the earth's surface.

The big prerequisite is both a swarm and rain - helping create conditions conducive for breeding and growth. Locust eggs dry out without rainfall. Rising temperatures also mean locusts can mature more quickly and spread to higher elevation environments.

 In just a few weeks, the next generation of pests will transition from juvenile stage and take wings. While a good rainfall in the summer could save a region's crops but at the same time, it could increase chances of locust hatching.

The region of Africa that includes Kenya and Ethiopia saw 300 percent of usual rainfall between October and November last year. On one November day, two years of rain fell, causing floods and displacing people, reports ABC.

Cyclone last year in Somalia brought heavy rains that fed fresh vegetation to fuel the locusts that are carried by wind to the Arabian Peninsula, the largest in the world stretching from West Asia to northeast Africa. Scientists say due to climate change a warmer Indian Ocean means more powerful tropical cyclones.

The current situation remains alarming in East Africa where Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia continue to face an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihood. New swarms from current breeding will form from mid-June onwards, coinciding with the start of the harvest. There is a risk that swarms will migrant to the summer breeding areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border as well as Sudan and perhaps West Africa, reports FAO.

The UN has warned of a major blow to food supply as locust swarms gobble up crops and gather to sweep across the region. Officials in Iran, Pakistan and India need to speed up coordination to deal with the locust infestation on a yearly basis. As the threat of locust swarms heading from East Africa to West Asia region increases amid global warming, initiatives with a larger scope are in order.

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