A farmer tries to chase away locusts in Pipli Pahar village in Pakistan's central Punjab province, February 23, 2020. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)

Locust Invasion Puts Pakistan in State of Emergency

Cotton crop, vital to economy, farmers’ livelihood, threatened

[Islamabad] Swarms of locusts are wreaking havoc in the agricultural heart of Pakistan, destroying the cotton crop in Punjab and Sind provinces.

This is the second time since 1993 that locusts threaten to devastate crops in the South Asian country.

Pakistan has declared a nationwide emergency and urgently appealed for help from the international community.

“An average swarm, which contains up to 40 million insects, can travel up to 150 kilometers in a single day and can devour enough food to feed 34 million people within that time,” according to the United Nations News website. “Unusually heavy rains and an increase in the frequency in cyclones in the Indian Ocean have created favorable conditions for the locusts to breed,” UN News added.

The locusts reached eastern Pakistan from Iran in June 2019 and have damaged cotton, wheat, corn and other crops.

Cotton is an important cash crop in Pakistan and a key source of livelihood for rural communities.

According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan, “Cotton-related products contribute 10% to the country’s GDP and 55% of the foreign exchange earnings of the country. Cotton is grown as an industrial crop from May to August and is grown at a smaller scale between February and April.”

Khusro Bakhtiar, federal minister for food security, told The Media Line, “Indeed it is a national emergency and the federal government is taking all possible measures to control the locust swarms.

“We are facing the worst infestation in more than two decades and therefore decided to impose a national emergency to deal with the threat,” he said.

“Pakistan is seeking help from China to control locust swarms,” he continued. “China is providing anti-locust spray and necessary machinery; China has already sent 300 tons of pesticides and medicines to assist in locust eradication.

“Aerial and ground operations are underway to control the swarms that continue to move toward eastern and central areas of the country,” Bakhtiar said. “District administrations, NGOs, private flying clubs and the armed forces have been put into operation to combat the attack and save the crops.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in early September that the situation relating to locusts in Pakistan was “most serious,” as a second generation of the insects had been bred.

According to the FAO’s Locust Watch report, “The threat of swarm formation is from late September 2019 onward.”

In February 2020, the Federal Food Ministry and FAO signed a $500,000 cooperation program to make the UN agency’s technical expertise available to local experts so as to strengthen their capacities to combat infestation.

South Korea, meanwhile, has announced it will donate $200,000 to help Pakistan respond to the locust infestation. According to Seoul’s embassy in Islamabad, “the donation will be channeled through the United Nations World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization.”

The situation has brought hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families to the brink of disaster.

Abdul Ghani Memon, general secretary of the Pakistan Farmers Association, told The Media Line, “The locust attacks could devastate the country’s entire agricultural economy.

“The locusts’ swarms aggravated the farmers’ problems at the grassroots level and we are not satisfied with the steps taken by the government,” he said. “The lack of grassroots measures at the government level is causing anxiety among cotton growers and farmers.”

Memon said that about 300,000 square kilometers of agricultural land have been devastated.

Ali Muhammed Khan, federal minister for parliamentary affairs, told The Media Line that “in the past important sectors including quality seeds, usage of modern technology and adopting the latest cultivation methods were ignored, but we are trying our level best to overcome past negligence.

“Under the National Emergency initiated by PM [Imran] Khan, new and quality-tested cotton seeds will be provided to the cotton farmers to enhance the production of the vital crop,” the federal minister said.

“Incentives will also be provided to the farmers to encourage cotton cultivation,” he said.

Ali Muhammed Khan said, “Due to infestation, cotton production may decline, but we [the government] hope that due to feasible strategy and timely planning, there will be sufficient cotton production and as yet it has not been decided at any level to import cotton, particularly from the US.

“We have great trade relations with the US and if it needed, our priority will be the United States,” he said.

Syed Mumtaz Ali, the chief secretary of Sind Province, told The Media Line that the government has allocated 7.3 billion rupees (about $45 million) to buy pesticides and so far has purchased about 65,000 liters of high-quality pesticides.

Hasham Popalzai, federal secretary for food security, told The Media Line, “Under the National Emergency, a National Action Plan has been launched.”

“With the technical collaboration of National Disaster Management, the Federal Plant Protection Department and provincial agriculture departments, more than 50 camps [staffed by technical personnel] will be established in the affected areas by June 2020,” Popalzai said. “2,800,000 liters of ultra-low volume pesticides will be sprayed by special aircraft,” he added.

Nadeem Malik, deputy director in the Federal Plant Protection Department, told The Media Line that at “the request of PM Imran Khan, a Chinese agro–engineers team visited Pakistan last month to evaluate the locust disaster and preemptive measures to be taken.

“Chinese technicians will train Pakistani staff to use the latest equipment provided by China for the eradication of locusts,” Malik added.

Ghulam Farid Abro, deputy director of the Sind Agricultural Department, told The Media Line, “A well-coordinated combat operation has been launched to clear the infestation areas with pesticide sprays provided by the Chinese government.”

Ismail Rahoo, Sind agriculture minister, told The Media Line, “Despite repeated spraying in various affected areas, field staff reports indicate that the infestation persists. We have asked the federal authorities to provide at least 32 vehicles and three airplanes to eliminate infestation.”

Prof. Qaiser Waheed, an Islamabad-based economist, said, “About 1.7 million people are engaged in growing cotton.

“Pakistan gets 19% of its edible oil from cottonseed oil,” Waheed told The Media Line. “Cotton cultivation is the backbone of the country’s economy. Therefore cotton growers are looking forward to take concrete steps to eradicate locusts from their soil.

“Crop damage could cut the country’s economic growth to approximately 2% for the fiscal year ending in June 2020,” he said,

The State Bank of Pakistan had forecasted growth of as much as 4%, but that was before the global coronavirus epidemic, which will hurt the country’s economy as well, Waheed said.

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