ISLAMABAD - The United Nations says Pakistan’s timely national response and cooperation with neighboring countries, including arch-rival India, have averted what was predicted to be a devastating invasion of desert locusts.
The Pakistani government declared a national emergency in late January following local and international forecasts the country would face its worst crop-eating locust infestation threat in nearly three decades.
The looming crisis had endangered food security for millions of people across the region, prompting the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to boost technical support for Pakistan and coordinate cooperation among regional countries to combat what is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world.
“Indeed, the desert locust upsurge has been stopped in the Southwest Asia because of very intensive efforts by both Pakistan and India during control operations that were carried out this summer in breeding areas along both sides of the border,” FAO forecaster Keith Cressman told VOA.
Cressman noted the locust threat has diminished due to “excellent” collaboration and cooperation between his agency, Pakistani and Indian governments and global partners.
“As a result, the desert locust situation is calm and has returned to normal in the region. No significant developments are expected for the remainder of this year and into at least early next year,” the FAO forecaster said.
Pakistan suffered its worst locust attack in nearly three decades in 2019, for which the country was ill-prepared at the time. The infestation significantly undermined production targets for wheat and cotton cash crops, among others, affecting many farmers across the country.
Preliminary official estimates of monetary losses due to desert locusts over the two coming agricultural seasons in 2020 and 2021 ranged from $3.4 billion to nearly $10 billion in the worst-case scenario.
Officials said the locust threat had spread to 63 Pakistani districts since March 2019 due to “the climatically suitable conditions, coupled with ideal habitat”, infesting almost all 33 districts of southwestern Baluchistan province.
The regional situation turned further alarming in the wake of FAO forecasts about an “imminent threat of several waves of spring-bred swarms” in May and June from newly found breeding grounds in Baluchistan and neighboring Iran.
Pakistani authorities promptly deployed spray drones, aircraft, hundreds of ground vehicles and tens of thousands of trained field workers to try to contain the possible upsurge. Surveys detected the locusts’ breeding ground and the hoppers – or young locusts – and have been regularly sprayed to kill them before they become adults.
FAO country chief Mina Dowlatchahi praised Pakistan’s effective response but urged authorities to remain vigilant, stressing only the emergency has ended but not the threat in general. She spoke at a ceremony in Islamabad last week that was arranged to mark the success of operations against locusts.
“The incredible coordination at the national and provincial levels has been an extraordinary lesson to the world that we will make sure will be compiled and disseminated so that other countries can take example of what needs to be done for a successful [locust] control,” Dowlatchahi said.
Pakistan received substantial assistance from its close ally, neighboring China in the form of drones, thousands of tons of pesticides and technical expertise, enabling the country to mitigate the crisis.
The desert locust has caused extensive damage this year to pastures and crops and threatened food security in East African countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea and Djibouti.
FAO experts say locust swarms can fly up to 150 kilometers a day, and the adult insects can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food each day. They estimate a small swarm can eat enough food to feed 35,000 people in one day.