Chinese agricultural experts join battle against locust disaster in Pakistan

By Ding Xuezhen in Islamabad Source:Global Times Published: 2020/2/26 20:38:40

A group of Chinese agricultural experts, who arrived in Karachi, Pakistan on Monday, has started their visit to the most affected areas of the recent locust attack, joining hands with the South Asian country to control one of the worst locust outbreaks in nearly three decades.

A group of Chinese agricultural experts, who arrived in Karachi, Pakistan on Monday Photo: the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of China

The Chinese experts will provide technical support for locust plague control and jointly work out an action plan with the Pakistani government to prevent another possible outbreak later in April, the economic and commercial counsellor's office of the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan told the Global Times. Dispatched by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the group will visit locust affected areas, including Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab provinces, and hold meetings with federal and local authorities as well as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) team in Pakistan.

Worst in decades

The situation was worse than the last locust attack Pakistan faced in 1993, said Pakistan's Minister of National Food Security and Research Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar at the National Assembly.

It was the first time that the locust swarms had entered the country's northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Bakhtiar said.

According to the FAO desert locust watch program, the current locust upsurge in East Africa and South Asia can be traced back to increased rainfalls in the southern Arabian Peninsula in 2018.

Heavy rains from two cyclones that year provided favorable conditions for locust breeding, enabling three generations of locusts to go "undetected and not controlled."

In 2019, the fast-growing locust swarms gradually began their journeys westwards to the Red Sea coast and then to the Horn of Africa, simultaneously eastwards to Iran, where control operations were less successful to stop widespread locust breeding in spring.

After invading Pakistan last summer, the locust swarms inhabited the Cholistan and Tharparkar deserts along the Indo-Pakistan border areas. 

According to the Dawn newspaper, the swarm has grown to threatening proportions since November 2019, when the FAO warned that it had started to leave its reproducing grounds.

Ashifaque, a planter in Sindh Province, told the Global Times that the locust swarms had been attacking his farms since early January, and went on for nearly one month.

"The locust attack first happened in the Tharparkar district and then all the Sindh areas were affected. It caused too much damage to our wheat and rice," Ashifaque said.

Preliminary assessments by local agricultural authorities in Sindh and Balochistan provinces show that nearly 80,000 hectares of crops have been damaged. In Balochistan alone, the agriculture losses incurred by the locust attack is estimated to be 4.63 billion rupees ($30 million), Dawn reported.

Limited resources

On the last day of January, a high-level meeting was convened by the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to address the challenge of looming locust swarms. The meeting decided to declare a national emergency against locust attacks and also approved a national action plan that costs 7.3 billion rupees.

Khan ordered the formation of a high-level committee at the federal level to facilitate coordination among ministries and local authorities, with Bakhtiar taking charge and the National Disaster Management Authority chairman Mohammad Afzal as the focus person.

Despite the government's strong commitment to controlling the locust attack, the situation has grown into a very difficult one for the government at both the federal and local levels.

The FAO believes aerial control is the only effective means to reduce the locust numbers, considering the scale of the current swarms, while Pakistan only has three operational agricultural aircraft, which have been used to spray pesticides over 8,094 hectares of land.

"It was too heavy for the local government to handle," Ashifaque said, adding that individual farmers had no choice but to use drums or metal barrels to make loud noises to scare the swarms away, a method that did not prove effective.

"Pakistan is fighting against locusts with limited resources. If the desert locust is not controlled in time, it will destroy all the agricultural crops, especially wheat, in Pakistan that will ultimately lead to a food shortage," Iqbal Munir, director of the Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at the University of Agriculture, Peshawar, told the Global Times.

Strong response urged

In the mid-February, FAO Director General Qu Dongyu warned Pakistan that with the start of the rainy season in April, swarm increases in large numbers would be a real disaster.

Although the locust attack has been brought under control, Pakistan needs to work as soon as possible to prevent future disasters, according to Qu.

As the locust swarms are currently active in limited areas, "if we can cure it, we can prevent a bigger disaster," he said, suggesting that the air force be mobilized to conduct aerial spray operations.

Although China itself is fighting hard against the spread of COVID-19 at home, the Chinese government became the first to offer help. 

On February 18, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing told Bakhtiar in a meeting that China is highly concerned about the severe locust outbreak in Pakistan and is willing to help Pakistan address this challenge.

"It will be more difficult to control the locust attack if the situation worsens from the current intensity," Munir said. It's high time for Pakistan to seek help from friendly countries like China. China may share experience and technologies such as chemicals, latest spraying equipment and biocontrol agents, Munir said.


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