GP Insights

GP Insights # 361, 30 May 2020

India: Worst locust attack in 30 years could be climate change-induced
Rashmi Ramesh

What happened?
Swarm of desert locusts have descended in India's western and northern states, adding to the woes of the farmers as well as the administration. Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are currently reeling under locust invasion. Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have sounded alerts about probable attacks. This being the biggest attack in more than two decades, the central government has stepped in to assist the states in fighting the swarms. 

What is the background?
First is the link to climate change. According to the experts in the UN Environment Programme, the current locust invasion has a climate change link. Studies point out that hotter climate gives rise to more damaging locust swarms. Climate has been unusually warm since the last five years in particular. It has also proven that rain helps the locusts breed in large numbers. In 2019, the Indian Ocean witnessed a phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, a condition where the western part of the ocean was unusually warm and the southeastern part cool. Warm waters in the western Indian Ocean caused unseasonal, persistent rainfall and flooding in parts of East Africa, which in-turn favoured the multiplication of locusts. 
Under normal conditions and 'quiet periods' (also known as recessions) the desert locusts are dispersed across arid and semi-arid regions of Africa. Their population in one particular area remains under control by either migration or natural mortality. 

Second is the expanse of the locust invasion. Swarms have adversely affected countries across East Africa and West Asia since 2019. Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Oman, Yemen and Iran have been severely affected. The swarms then moved towards South Asia, destroying farms in Pakistan and now in India. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned the countries of "a potentially serious food security crisis" due to persisting locust attacks. 

What does it mean?
First, the COVID-19 pandemic has induced a humanitarian crisis, with many countries facing extreme difficulties due to strained health infrastructure. The situation is certainly grim in developing countries. Additionally, the locust attack has taken a toll on the pandemic-hit countries in East Africa and Asia. The threat to food security during a health crisis and the already existing natural disasters like cyclones and floods in the eastern part of India explains the gravity of the situation.

Second, the quality of pesticides is a concern. The locusts seem to have developed some amount of immunity to the pesticides that are being used. It is, therefore, important to improve the quality of pesticides and fertilizers, while also ensuring that they do not cause food poisoning and harm consumers. 

Third, there is a need for a concrete plan for cooperation among the countries that have been affected by the locusts. Cooperation at the regional level through regional institutions will be much more effective, rather than increased dependency on FAO. India and Pakistan; Pakistan, Iran and Turkey have been working together at present, at bilateral and trilateral levels respectively. 

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