GP Insights

GP Insights # 351, 9 May 2020

Threatening Food Security: Locust attacks across East Africa, Iran and Pakistan
Rashmi Ramesh

What happened?
On 7 May, Dawn, one of the leading dailies of Pakistan quoted an official involved in inter-agency cooperation to address locust control in the country, that the situation is "far worse than anticipated" and informed that Pakistan is "pressing countries that are having or are expected to suffer from it to take action, improve coordination, share data, and exchange information on the control measures taken so far." In March, Pakistan had proposed a high-level technical committee in South West Asia to address the threat.

Also during the week, Iran's Ambassador to Pakistan, Syed Mohammad Ali Hussaini called for enhancing cooperation among the countries worst hit by the locusts. Tehran and Ankara have offered complete cooperation and technical expertise in controlling the pests.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has warned the countries of "a potentially serious food security crisis" due to the persisting locust attacks across East Africa, parts of West Asia and South Asia. Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Iran, and Pakistan are among the worst affected countries.

What is the background?
The disastrous locust attack traces its genesis to 2018 when Luban and Mekunu cyclones made landfall in Yemen and Oman respectively and created lakes and puddles in desert areas. These became a breeding ground for the locusts. The swarms then moved to East Africa, where they further got favourable conditions for breeding because of the prolonged wet season and unseasonal rainfall and flooding.

The locust invasion of 2020, which is the continuation of the 2019 outbreak, is the worst in at least 25 years. There is a grave threat from the ongoing second wave of locust infestation now seen in East Africa, Iran and Pakistan predominantly. Reports point that a swarm of a third of a square mile has the capacity to consume the same amount of food as around 35000 people in a day. The situation is alarming, as the new swarms in Uganda, Kenya and Somalia comprise mostly of adult locusts. Food supply and dwindling livelihoods will be a significant challenge, especially when the world is grappling with the outbreak of COVID-19.

The locusts have evolved to be immune to the toxicity of the pesticides. The attack persists even though pesticides are being sprayed. The poor quality of the pesticides also adds to the problem. Turkey has now promised Pakistan to export pesticides for tackling the issue.

Third, it seems like climate change is directly or indirectly linked to the locust invasion as well. Scientists at FAO have noted the changes in the breeding season of these pests. Unseasonal rainfall and "Indian Ocean Dipole" (sea warming phenomenon) resulting in unusual cyclones are the reason behind the changing breeding season and the unusual breeding grounds in deserts.

What does it mean?
First, the ability of the individual countries to deal with it. Pakistan is already in the midst of a serious economic crisis and is waging a two-front war against COVID-19 and the locusts. In such a scenario, it is a daunting task for the government to mitigate the impact of the latter. The provinces, particularly Sindh, has accused the centre of not doing enough to deal with the situation. Due to the gravity of the issue, Pakistan called for international cooperation to combat the infestation.

Second, there is a need to work on a regional framework that would bring the affected countries, their resources, and expertise together. The geographic continuity of the locust problem (from east Africa to India) mandates the need for regional cooperation.

Third, FAO and the regional/national level organizations provide warnings about the incoming locust invasion. However, apart from early warning, there must be enough focus on solutions and capacity building in these countries. A combination of early warning and capacity building would enable better preparedness to fight the swarms.

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