India gears up for a new crisis - voracious desert locusts that may cause food shortages

The locusts have also spread wider in search of food. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India is bracing for a growing assault on its western front with droves of intruders flying in from Pakistan. While the first reports of the current cycle of desert locusts came in April, swarms of these voracious insects have grown significantly in recent weeks, making inroads deep into the country and posing a threat to crops as well as vegetation used for animal fodder.

The fresh outbreak has been severe in Rajasthan, a state bordering Pakistan. Locusts have been spotted in more than 17 districts here, including some where they had never been reported before.

The previous cycle of attacks by desert locusts in India lasted from May 2019 to February this year, causing reported damage across 371,000 hectares of 10 billion rupees (S$187.5 million) in Rajasthan alone.

Not only has the new cycle of attack come earlier than expected, the locusts have also spread wider in search of food given the lower availability of vegetation in summer months. Sightings have been reported in the states of Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh. In MP, locusts have been recorded for the first time since 1993.

The resulting shortages in food and animal fodder risk exacerbating the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic on marginalised families in these areas.

The crisis comes amid the worst outbreak of desert locusts in eastern Africa in decades, which has seen favourable breeding weather since 2018 caused by high rainfall. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations said the locust outbreak is the worst to strike Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years, and the worst infestation that Kenya has experienced in 70 years.

There are worrying spillover consequences for southwest Asia.

Mr Keith Cressman, the FAO's senior locust forecaster, told The Straits Times in an email on Thursday that recent rainfall is expected to produce a dramatic increase in locust numbers in East Africa over the coming months. "A portion of these second generation swarms due in East Africa from mid-June onwards are expected to migrate from the Horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, to the desert areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border," he said.

This anticipated migration from the Horn of Africa will be supplemented by swarms arriving from spring breeding areas in southwest Pakistan and southern Iran from May to July. These desert locusts are slated to come into India during the monsoon, allowing them to lay eggs for a further generation of breeding in India.

If they persist, their presence could wreak havoc during the key Kharif cropping season when crops are grown with the onset of the monsoon and harvested between September and October. "Depending on this year's monsoon and the success of control operations, new swarms could form at the time of harvest," Mr Cressman added.

The FAO estimates the number of locusts could increase another 20 times during the upcoming rainy season if anti-locust operations are not stepped up, prompting fears of damage far greater than that caused in the 2019-20 cycle. Various state governments, as well as the Indian government and its Locust Warning Organisation, have already swung into action, spraying pesticides on these swarms.

The Press Trust of India, a news agency, reported on Thursday that India had proposed a trilateral approach to Pakistan and Iran to deal with the rapidly growing threat, besides offering pesticides. On May 21, the Indian government also permitted the use of drones to in anti-locust operations.

The desert locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world. Locust swarms can vary from less than one sq km to several hundred sq km. There can be at least 40 million and sometimes as many as 80 million locust adults in each sq km of the swarm. Desert locusts devour massive quantities of vegetation - wild plants, shrubs, trees and grass, as well as food crops. A one sq km swarm of desert locusts can eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people, according to the FAO.

Dr Suwalal Jat, a Rajasthan state government officer in charge of anti-locust operations, said the season this time could last longer than the 2019-20 cycle. With the locusts coming earlier during the dry season, they are moving farther from the bare desert region near the border to interior areas with vegetation.

"The ones coming in are young adults capable of covering 200 to 250km a day, compared to the earlier ones that covered 150 to 200km per day," he told The Straits Times. The Rajasthan government has already sanctioned the use of 600 power-operated sprays mounted on tractors, besides other vehicles for surveying and control operations currently underway.

"We used these spraying vehicles as late as December in the last cycle but have already started using them now," Dr Jat added. The federal government is reportedly also considering importing specialised equipment from the United Kingdom.

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