The Next Crisis

May 25, 2020

Op-ed writer: Bilal Mustikhan is a fourth year student studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University. He has interned as a sub-editor at the Dawn News business desk and is currently preparing for the civil services exam. He has a keen interest in international relations and world history.

Governments around the globe are struggling to strike a balance between saving lives and livelihoods. The Coronavirus has impeded routines, and is deepening both the health crisis and economic crisis. To add insult to injury, other crises are transpiring due to the status quo of the pandemic-stricken world. According to the World Food Programme, the virus, which has weakened healthcare systems and generated massive unemployment, may also lead to multiple famines.

Last year, approximately 135 million people faced food insecurity. The global pandemic could push approximately 265 million people to the brink of starvation. Massive political and social unrest will make it increasingly difficult to maintain fragile lockdowns imposed by developing countries. Protests have already erupted in parts of Africa and India, which are witnessing food shortages due to the disrupted global supply chain. An emerging swarm of locusts in global agriculture hubs has further exacerbated food security.

The onslaught of locusts can be traced to shifting weather patterns. An increasing frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Peninsula has dumped enough water to create an ideal breeding ground for locusts. Another cyclone hit northeastern Somalia and Ethiopia in December 2019, and set the stage for locust breeding grounds to flourish.

Grasshoppers and locusts come from the same family. However, grasshoppers prefer solitude and lack the ability to travel far. A certain species of grasshoppers transforms into locusts when they are brushed up together. This grouping allows serotonin to develop within grasshoppers, who then undergo certain behavioral changes, develop wings, turn yellow, and grow larger. Once they transform into locusts, they become egregious and eat everything in sight. They possess the ability to fly more than 100 kilometers while aided by wind, making them a dangerous migratory species. Their constant movement makes it logistically difficult to eradicate them.  

Locust swarms have ravaged thousands of acres of land in parts of East Africa, seizing the spotlight from Coronavirus related distress as the risk of losing food poses a larger threat. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization fears that a  second wave is likely to occur in late June-July due to favorable breeding conditions throughout May. The second locust outbreak will likely be much worse, since it will further destabilize food security and destroy livelihoods. 

Authorities have struggled to tackle this locust invasion due to trade disruption. Coronavirus linked lockdowns and world-wide travel restrictions have obstructed the delivery of pesticides. As a result, farmers in a village bordering Kenya are trying to combat locusts with traditional methods, such as banging metal pans, whistling and throwing stones. According to Ethiopia's agriculture  ministry spokesman, a wave of locusts is emerging in new areas - the damage caused by locusts has driven Somalia to declare a national emergency.

While ravening locusts flutter through parts of Pakistan, the government is handing out rations and donations to address the plight of the pandemic-stricken poor. However, the provincial and federal governments have failed to organize a joint pandemic response, and continue to be distracted by internal politics. In Sindh, the public health crisis  has kept local officials pre-occupied as they grapple with the virus. As a result, the provincial govt has neglected the influx of locusts that are devouring standing crops in parts of Sukkur, Kandhkot-Kashmore, Shikarpur, Jacobabad, and Dadu. While the world is facing a grim recession, any damage incurred to agriculture, which accounts for approximately one quarter of  GDP, will be detrimental.

The UN's trepidation over this locust phenomenon, along with the World Food Programme’s warnings, call for a prompt response. Pakistan’s provincial and federal governments should seriously address the locust issue in conjunction to avoid a future food crisis that will not only lead to social unrest, but also massive unemployment.

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