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World must protect India and Pakistan from threat of locust swarms

Insects wipe out crops and pastures, damaging food supply and livelihoods

| India
A man attempts to fend-off a swarm of desert locusts in Kenya on Feb. 21: it is the worst outbreak to strike the country in 70 years.   © Reuters

Keith Cressman is senior locust forecaster at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

As the world focuses on the insidious spread of the coronavirus, one of the most notorious migratory pests, the desert locust, has been charting its own path of destruction from the Arabian Peninsula to East Africa and as far east as Pakistan and India.

It is the worst outbreak of desert locusts to strike the Horn of Africa in decades. For Ethiopia and Somalia it is the biggest in 25 years, and the worst in Kenya for 70 years.

Somali farmers recently shared their heartbreak. Khayre Du'aale Dhayne, a farmer and village chairman from Geerisa in Somaliland, told the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization: "This pest is having a devastating effect on us, it has destroyed the grazing land of our livestock. It is spreading devastation across the land."

But the devastation is not confined to Africa. Heavy rains caused by a spate of cyclones in the Indian Ocean in 2018 and 2019 created ideal conditions for the locusts to breed. Swarms have been reported in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, and it is already in South Asia. Now is the time for the world to act.

Pakistan declared a national emergency in February as farmers struggled to combat their worst locust situation in nearly three decades, with swarms from last summer's breeding reaching the country's agricultural heartland in the Punjab region.

On the other side of the border, India managed to contain the locust infestations that affected the western states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, a new threat looms with the forthcoming monsoon season when a generation of voracious swarms may arrive from spring breeding areas in southern Iran and from the current upsurge in the Horn of Africa.

A desert locust respects no borders. It can travel up to 150 kilometers a day and eat its own weight in food, about two grams daily. A single swarm measuring one sq. kilometer can contain up to 80 million locusts, while most swarms are about 10-500 sq. kilometers.

A desert locust, pictured in Kenya on Jan. 16: it can travel up to 150 kilometers a day and eat about two grams daily.   © Reuters

The scale of the upsurge is difficult to imagine. Thousands of hectares of pastures and crops are being wiped out in communities where farmers need every gram of food to feed themselves and their families.

Most of the countries hardest hit are those where millions of people are already vulnerable or in serious humanitarian need as they endure the impact of violence, drought and floods. In East Africa the situation is particularly alarming where nearly 20 million people are already considered acutely food insecure.

The Food and Agriculture Organization is on the front line working with farmers, national and local governments and other partners to try and wipe out the locusts and prevent a new generation from doing even more damage.

In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are starting to form, representing an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season. But the upsurge will not stop there.

On a recent visit to Pakistan, the FAO's Director-General, Qu Dongyu, saw firsthand the impact of the locusts in Punjab's Okara district and the dire threat they pose to farmers and their livelihoods. The FAO is sharing its technical expertise with national experts to help them combat the infestation and working with the government to improve locust management.

Fortunately, desert locusts cannot reach as far as China or further east beyond India because of the winds and the Himalayan mountains that act as a natural barrier.

The FAO is appealing for $153 million to help governments control these devastating pests. So far around $107 million has been pledged or received from donors so we urgently need to fill the gap.

Immediate action from donors and national teams, including upscaling aerial control operations, is critical to control and contain the locusts before the new swarms take flight and farmers' crops first break soil.

At the same time, the FAO needs to boost the resilience of affected communities and build livelihoods so farmers and their families can better withstand some inevitable shocks.

The FAO has supplied 15 locust experts and other personnel to support governments with surveillance and coordination of locust control activities, technical advice and the procurement of supplies and equipment for aerial and ground operations in East Africa. But far more needs to be done.

We have to bring this infestation under control before the rain and planting season begins.

The swarms are highly mobile, the terrain is often difficult to reach and the logistical challenges are immense. But left unchecked, and with expected additional rains, locust numbers in East Africa alone could increase 400 times by June and we could see an invasion of northeast Africa and a resurgence in India and Pakistan as well.

We must act now to avoid a full-blown catastrophe.

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