By Sania Sheikh and Imtiyaz Ahmed
Locust swarms (in Kashmiri called Haalav) are presently wrecking havoc with crops and people’s livelihoods across swathes of farmlands in Pakistan and India.
So far Jammu & Kashmir has remained unscathed, but there are apprehensions that this particularly rare and large locust attack could target both Jammu and Kashmir regions any time now. The question that Ziraat Times set out to address is this: Are such apprehensions actually well founded?
History of ‘Haalav‘ attack in Kashmir
A locust attack is said to have taken place in Kashmir during the Maharaja Gulab Singh’s reign at a time when paddy crop was at its harvest stage.
Locust swarms are said to have destroyed farms in certain areas in Kashmir in 19th century, and then suddenly, due to bad weather, took the South Pirpanjal route towards the plains. By act of providence, the swarms were caught in a snowstorm in the pirpanjal mountains and perished en masse. Since then there are no major documented attacks of locust swarms in Kashmir.
Will locusts penetrate into Kashmir this time?
Ajaz Bhat, Director Horticulture Department Kashmir, says while in the past there have been locust attacks in parts of Leh and Kargil, it is unlikely for the swarms to sneak into Kashmir valley and do any damage to crops.
“There is no such recent precedent, so an attack in Kashmir is unlikely”, he told Ziraat Times.
Muhammad Iqbal Choudhary, Joint Director (Extension) Agriculture Department, Kashmir agrees, “As far as the past goes, there were isolated locust attacks in Zanskar sub-division during 2007-08, and perhaps 2014-15 as well. But in recent years, there are no documented cases of locust attacks in Kashmir province.”
At the ground level, while farmers in Kashmir are largely unmindful of the happenings in the plains, observers in Jammu region are closely monitoring the situation. “It is true, locust swarms are unlikely to penetrate into Kashmir valley, but Jammu plains are very vulnerable. Jammu district, Samba and Kathua are in close proximity to the Punjab. Locusts can easily penetrate here”, a senior professor at SKUAST-Jammu l, wishing not to be named, told Ziraat Times.
Ground level vigilance in Kashmir valley, nevertheless, is very much happening.
“There is no history of major locust attack in Kashmir whereas Ladakh region has witnessed a number of locust attacks”, Arvind Baru Chief Agriculture Officer, Srinagar says.
“There is no need for worry in Kashmir. We have experienced very less attacks of locusts in the past. At the field level we are well prepared and have asked the staff to keep close watch on any possible locust movement”, said Dr Ghulam Mohammad Dobi, Chief Agriculture Officer, Ganderbal.
One of the reasons why such an attack is unlikely in Kashmir has something to do with the valley’s topography, the mountain shield and cooler climatic conditions.
“I don’t think we will be having any such problem here. There isn’t conducive environment for their breeding here in Kashmir conditions”, Dr Rouf Malik, a scientist at SKUAST-K said.
Where did the latest locust swarm attacks in Pakistan and India originate from?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the current infestations of locust can be traced back to the cyclone season of 2018-19 that brought heavy rains to the Arabian Peninsula. Those rains are known to have lead to least three generations of “unprecedented breeding”, that went undetected. Swarms have since spread out into India and Pakistan and East Africa.
Why is this year’s attack causing concern?
Locusts move in swarms of up to 50 million, can travel 90 miles a day, and lay as many as 1,000 eggs per square metre of land. An average small locust swarm can eat as much food in a day as about 35,000 people. Even if there are no standing crops, locusts eat up all the green vegetation, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds and plants.
This year’s attack has so far affected such large areas in Pakistan and north India which is said to be unprecedented. Given that three generations of swarms have bred in areas around Balochistan, Sindh, Pakistan Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and also Punjab the numbers are staggering. On Tuesday, Uttar Pradesh issued an alert too. The second generation is 20 times bigger than the first generation.
How is things in North India
After attacking Rajasthan, including Jaipur, swarms of locusts spread their onslaught wider to parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Gujarat and Punjab governments have warned their farmers of imminent locust attacks.
This is the second round of locust attack in India, the first one having occurred during December-February.
Situation in Pakistan
The Pakistani government has declared a national emergency this year after the locusts began to decimate winter crops in Baluchistan, Singh and Punjab. The first swarm came from the United Arab Emirates in mid-2019, and in the next few weeks time a new infestation is expected to arrive from Iran.
This year, Pakistan fears the locust attacks to be ten times worse than last year. They are expected to infest more than 5 million hectares.
Pakistan will incur losses of about £2bn in winter crops, such as wheat, and a further £2.3bn in the summer crops being planted now, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
What the FAO is saying about the situation
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) had on Friday said locust attacks in 12 countries, including Pakistan, Iran and ten nations in Africa, have damaged crops over millions of hectares.
“Despite control operations, recent heavy rains have created ideal conditions for the pest’s reproduction in several countries. Young juveniles will become voracious adults in June just as farmers begin to harvest, compounding an already bleak food security situation,” FAO warned in its Friday release.
The World Bank has set up a $500 million programme to help countries in Africa and the Middle East combat the impact of locusts.
India, Pakistan and Iran have joined hands to counter the locust invasion which threatens to destroy crops and undermine food security mainly in South Asia.
According to news reports, India has proposed a trilateral response in partnership with Pakistan and Iran to combat the desert locust wave sweeping across the region. Both Pakistan and Iran are said to have responded positively to the cooperation offer.