Ms Mamoona Shahzad is currently pursuing an MPhil in English Linguistics from the University of Sargodha. She has a Bachelor's in English Language and Literature from the same university.
The episode in question was not the first time Pakistan had to face the desert locust threat. The last time our country had to tackle this issue was back in 1993. However, the desert locust situation in 1993 had been brought under control within four days. This too had been achieved with resources that were limited compared to the ones we have today.
Entering Pakistan from two sides in 2019, desert locusts spread through the country at an alarming rate. The swarms entered Pakistan from the eastern front through Indian Rajhastan in the Cholistan and Tharparkar deserts. Swarms of these insects entered the country through Balochistan from Iran. From Balochistan, these locusts went on to attack areas of Sindh and then Punjab which is the country’s agricultural center.
A Far Greater Threat
Compared to the one in 1993, the desert locust episode from 2018-21 held a higher level of severity and urgency that had to be dealt with immediately. The two decades that had elapsed between the episode in 1993 and the one under study had somewhat lulled the precautions and measures made by our policymakers. The focus shifted away from locust survey and control to the regulation of the import of pesticides.
The desert locust episode of 2018-21 was also characterized by climate change in Pakistan. It had been estimated by authorities that the locusts would not stay after November 2019, but their stay was prolonged due to the weather conditions. Muhammad Tariq Khan, the technical director of the Department of Plant Protection (DPP) at the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, said that the combination of sandy soil and excess rain was the perfect setting for locusts to breed.
The FAO had warned that almost 37% of Pakistan’s area would be the most vulnerable to these attacks. This 37% area included 60% area of Balochistan, 25% area of Sindh, and 15% area of Punjab provinces. The crisis brought together the country’s National Disaster Management Authority, provincial agricultural departments, and the armed forces of Pakistan together in tackling the desert locust attacks.
The DPP and the FAO set up operations in parts of Balochistan to bring the situation under control. These operations covered the areas of Pasni, Gwadar, Turbat, Uthal, Kharan, and Dalbandin. Farmers in Balochistan were provided with vehicles and pesticides to get rid of these horned grasshoppers.
Through the use of ground and aerial spray, the Pakistani government was able to secure areas of 110,000 hectares, saving cotton and winter crops to a large extent. Unfortunately, the abovementioned measures and resources were not enough to bring the situation under control. Muhammad Riaz, Assistant Director of the Agriculture Pest Warning in Chakwal district, noted that approximately 400 acres of crops had been destroyed in less than two days by two groups of desert locusts.
The locusts afflicted 14 districts in Punjab and 10 districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. According to the Minister for National Food Security, Khusro Bakhtiar, the swarms for the first time traveled as far as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The General Secretary of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture announced that 40% of crops including wheat, cotton, maize, and tomato had been affected by the locusts.
National Action Plan
A national action plan requiring a sum of PKR 7.3 billion was approved to manage the crisis. To combat the desert locust threat, this plan involved efficient coordination between crisis actors and concerned institutions (both public and private), timely mobilization of resources, and efficient surveillance and control operations.
In order to deal with serious threats to agriculture, certain Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) had been endorsed by FAO. Mass awareness activities as per these SOPs were among the initiatives to safeguard national food security. The Minister for National Food Security, Khusro Bakhtiar, was assigned by the Prime Minister with the task of forming and heading a high-level committee. The objective of this committee was to take decisions to eliminate desert locusts at the federal level.
An important part of crisis management is keeping the concerned actors and public informed regarding the damage that is estimated to occur, the damage that has occurred till the present moment, and the progress that has been made in terms of overcoming the crisis. During the desert locust episode in question, the DPP and FAO constantly worked in unison. They regularly shared the overall crisis situation and the risks that were estimated to occur.
With the purpose of getting technical guidance and support, FAO shared reports regularly with the government of Pakistan. From one such report by the FAO, it was estimated that the country’s agriculture could face a loss of about Rs. 205 billion. This included a 15% damage level for the production of wheat, gram, and potato which are among the staple foods of Pakistan.
Despite its serious audience and elite status, Dawn newspapers only included 120 locust-related news stories from June 2019-July 2020. With an average of 280 words per story, the newspaper shed light on aspects like the measures that had been taken to deal with the crisis, aid from national and international groups, and buying of pesticides, etcetera. Information including directions that would help prevent properties from being destroyed was missing. An absence of photographs, maps, and timeline representations was also observed.
The desert locust attacks were a great blow to Pakistan’s agriculture which is the main source of income for the majority of its population. These losses included low production of crops including cotton, maize, and wheat, etcetera. For the first time in ten years, Pakistan had to import wheat because it had missed its production target for wheat by about 2 million tonnes.
Efficient dissemination of information aids in alleviating people’s fear and uncertainty during crises. It helps in instructing and guiding people regarding the measures and steps to take during a crisis. The time that could have been utilized to plan strategies for tackling the crisis was used by our government officials to deflect the blame for the consequences of the locust attacks. Provincial governments used the lack of resources as an excuse for their inaction, while the federal government justified its lack of management and inability to respond to the attacks by saying that it was awaiting guidance and support from international organizations.
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