Coronavirus pandemic overshadows locust attack in Southern Pakistan

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By Muhammad Luqman
At a time when Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments are busy in efforts to mitigate the effects of coronavirus outbreak, the desert locusts are ravaging crops in Balochistan , Sindh and Punjab provinces.
Swarms of locusts are wreaking havoc in the agricultural heart of Pakistan, destroying crops and other vegetations. This is the second locust attack in Pakistan in less than three months.
The desert locusts —  that resemble grasshoppers — arrived in Pakistan from Iran and spread to as far as the Pakistan-India border around the Cholistan desert in Punjab after ravading crops in Sindh and Balochistan.
In a report prepared this week 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 rabi (winter-sown) crops like wheat, chickpea and oilseeds grow. Losses to agriculture could reach PKR 205 billion [USD 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 PKR 353 billion for the rabi crops, and about PKR 464 billion for kharif (summer-sown) crops.
FAO warned that the locust populations will move from the spring breeding areas in Balochistan and adjacent areas of southeast Iran to the summer breeding areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. The movement will continue throughout June, so untreated swarms are likely to cross the Indus valley and reach the desert areas in Tharparkar, Nara and Cholistan in time for the start of the monsoon rains. It also warned of a second threat of invasion by swarms in East Africa in late June and in July
Meanwhile, Iran and Turkey have offered cooperation and expertise to Pakistan in the fight against a massive locust onslaught, which has destroyed large swathes of crops across the country and put food security for millions of people at risk.
Turkey has handed over a purpose-built Piper Brave spray aircraft along with four crew members to Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The aircraft would be assembled before its departure for the pest infected areas in the country, especially in southern Sindh and northeastern Punjab, the PAF said.
“Turkey and Pakistan are all weather friends and this gesture would help improve a comprehensive pest control system to overcome the locust plague,” the PAF said in a statement. The aircraft was airlifted to Pakistan from Turkey’s southern province of Adana, it added.
According to a spokesperson for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the aircraft has been leased for six months for aerial spray in locust-affected areas. “The use of the aircraft will be effective in eradicating locusts from the country,” he said.
Iran has said that the southern part of the country was hit by locus attacks this winter after the insect migrated from the border areas of Pakistan and India. Iranian officials, however, warned that when the winds in Iran turned towards land, the locusts would return to Pakistan.
To cope with the situation, Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan Syed Mohammad Ali Hussaini has offered joint cooperation to Pakistan. The ambassador has stressed the need for the two countries to increase budget and regional cooperation to fight this common threat.
The ambassador said that for the past few years, both Iran and Pakistan had been facing the problem of desert locust attacks but this year, the estimates suggested that the insect onslaught could the most severe in the last 50 years.
The Iranian ambassador has pointed out that eliminating locust in Pakistan and India would not be possible without controlling it in Iran. He has proposed anti-locus spray on crops before the attack and fighting the insect before laying eggs.

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