India reaches out to Pakistan to fight locusts

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India has reached out to Pakistan to counter a locust invasion which threatens to destroy crops and undermine food security in south and southwest Asia — a region where the COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted farming.

An official source who did not wish to be named said India had proposed a trilateral response in partnership with Pakistan and Iran to combat the desert locust wave sweeping across the Afro-Asian region.

Also read | After COVID-19, India’s next challenge could be mega-sized locust attack this summer

“India has suggested to Pakistan that both countries coordinate locust control operations along the border, and that India can facilitate supply of Malathion, a pesticide, to Pakistan,” the official said.

Desert locusts pose a major threat to food security in the region, including India. A typical locust swarm, which can vary from less than one square kilometre to several hundred square kilometres, can devastate farmlands. A one square kilometre swarm, containing about 40 million locusts, can in a day eat as much food as 35,000 people, assuming that each individual consumes 2.3 kg of food per day, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In India, small swarms of desert locusts, in the past weeks, have already arrived from Pakistan, moving east into Rajasthan, and reaching Jodhpur.

“We are preparing for a worst-case scenario. Starting from the Horn of Africa, and joined by desert locusts from breeding grounds en route, one locust stream can travel over a land corridor passing over Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India, impacting farmlands in Punjab, Haryana and the Indo-Gangetic plain. But another stream passing over the Indian Ocean can directly attack farms in peninsular India, and then head towards Bangladesh,” another official had earlier told The Hindu.

The official source said India and Pakistan had a regular mechanism, led by their “Locust Officers,” who hold six annual border meetings, between June and November. This dialogue is held either at Munabao in Rajasthan or Khokhropar on the Pakistani side. Officials of the two neighbours are also in wireless contact with each other during these months from their perches in Jodhpur and Karachi.

Also read | Locusts cross Thar desert to invade 16 districts in Rajasthan

India is also offering to energise another mechanism marshalled by the Locust Warning Organisation, to coordinate a robust joint response by New Delhi, Islamabad and Tehran. So far, Iran has welcomed India’s offer of pesticide to control desert locusts in its arid South Khorasan province, and Sistan-Balochistan province that borders Pakistan, the source said.

Analysts spotlight that despite established protocols, it is not clear whether Pakistan will respond positively to India’s proposal, given the downturn in New Delhi-Islamabad ties — evident in their inability to work together on a collective regional response against COVID-19 under the SAARC framework. The source said that it remains to be seen whether Pakistan will come forward with “cooperation on coordinated desert locust control operation with India,” rising above, what he described was Islamabad’s “narrow-minded approach,” as seen during the COVID-19 initiative.

Also read | Swarms of locusts spotted in border villages of Punjab

Despite apprehensions, it is clear that Pakistan’s requirement for international support to contain the locust attack is substantial and urgent. An editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn, exhorted the “international community” to support the FAO’s call “for funds to help Pakistan and Iran in their fight against a new locust invasion.” “Unless this war is won, the locust plague in Pakistan may wipe out more livelihoods than the COVID-19 contagion and worsen food security in the coming months,”it observed

China has, so far, stepped up its counter-locust backing for Pakistan, but Beijing’s support alone is unlikely to meet Islamabad’s mounting needs, observers say, pointing to the window for a trilateral initiative.

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