- Last big outbreak
- Locust Warning Organization
- Climate link to the infestation
- Dealing with locusts invasions
- Lack of adequate action
The menace of Desert Locusts
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India is gearing up for what could be one of its worst locust invasions in decades. Outbreaks of the insect attack have been reported from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
Last big outbreak:
- The last big infestation in India was in 2010.
- There were 13 locust plagues between 1964 and 1997.
- From 1997 to 2010, there were five outbreaks that were controlled.
- From 2010 to 2018, there were no major swarms or breeding reported, according to the Locust Warning Organization in India.
- In 2019, Gujarat and Rajasthan reported a significant surge in locust infestations which caused damage to crops.
- This was partly due to an unusually long monsoon but also because pest-control operations were inadequate; therefore, nascent populations of the insect had not been wiped out.
- So far swarms have been recorded in nearly 50,000 hectares in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and if they continue to thrive as the monsoon arrives, it could cause serious agricultural damage.
- Somalia had announced a national state of emergency due to the outbreak in February 2020, while Pakistan declared a national emergency for the second time this year, in April.
Locust Warning Organization:
- As a result of the 1926-1931/1932 locust plague, India, under the British at the time, began research into the desert locust, beginning in 1931.
- It then led to the establishment of a permanent Locust Warning Organization (LWO) in 1939, with a station in Karachi (undivided India).
- A particularly bad season in 1926-1931 prompted the imperial administration to establish the Karachi warning centre.
- Its main job was to keep an eye out for a specific sub-species of the insect, the desert locust, that sprang into the region from the Thar desert.
- There were serious outbreaks in 1812, 1821, 1843-44, 1863-67, 1869-73, 1876-81, 1889-98, 1900-1907, 1912-1920.
- After Independence, India established its own centre at Jodhpur, Rajasthan, as a part of the Directorate of Plant Protection Quarantine and Storage, under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Climate link to the infestation:
- A phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole, in which the western and eastern parts of Indian ocean have differential warming, tend to have an outsized impact in bringing excessive rains to India and West Asia.
- A ‘positive’ dipole is when the western part is hotter by a degree or more than the eastern.
- Last year saw one of the strongest positive dipoles in the Indian neighbourhood which brought on a difference of more than two degrees.
- The Indian Ocean Dipole was so strong that it over-rode concerns of a drought in India last June and brought torrential rainfall — the most India has seen in decades.
- This extended rainfall continued in several parts of West Asia, Oman, Yemen and in the Horn of Africa — Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya — so much so that the dry sand became heavily moisture laden, facilitating the formation of several locust swarms.
- Due to favourable winds, it helped swarms to fly and breed in traditional grounds in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
- The unusually mild summer this year, which saw several bouts of rainfall over north and western India from March to May, also helped the insects breed.
- The normal locust season in India spans June-November and coincides with the kharif season.
Dealing with locust invasions:
- A locust attack has to be dealt with by spraying pest control and plant protection chemicals.
- According to the Food and agricultural Organisation adult locusts were forming groups and small swarms in spring breeding areas in Balochistan, Indus Valley (Pakistan) and southern coast and parts of Sistan-Baluchistan.
- These infestations are likely to move to the summer breeding areas along India-Pakistan from Cholistan to Tharparkar.
- In India, existing groups of swarms have continued to move east and to the central States of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
- Much of these movements were associated with the strong westerly winds of Cyclone Amphan.
- Several successive waves of invasions are likely until July in Rajasthan, with eastward surges across northern India as far as Bihar and Odisha followed by westward movements and a return to Rajasthan on the changing winds associated with the monsoon.
Lack of adequate action:
- Indian officials, last year and this year too, have blamed Pakistan for not spraying adequate pesticide to stem the nascent population.
- It has been part of the protocol for many years, for entomologists from India and Pakistan to conduct border meetings and divide pest control responsibilities.
- While the lack of funds and inadequate monitoring have been a problem for many years, as the FAO has frequently pointed out, the novel coronavirus pandemic this year has caused lack of focus on natural disasters such as cyclones as well as locust attacks.
- While locusts are unlikely to be a threat in urban centres as they do not have much to feed on, the national lockdown has made the availability of pesticide as well as its transportation difficult.
- With labour also not being available easily due to the lockdown, this could affect spraying operations and, as a result, allow locusts to cause significant damage.
- Experience shows that a locust plague usually follows a one to two year cycle after which there is a lull for eight to nine years.
- However, strong Indian Ocean Dipoles are expected to become more frequent whetted by an overall trend of warming oceans which will trigger regular locust infestations.
The attack could be worse this year because of a chain of climate events, administrative laxity in several countries and the difficult circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts have warned of huge crop losses if the swarms are not stopped by June when the monsoons will lead to a new season of sowing rice, sugarcane, cotton and other crops.