FAO in Pakistan

Desert Locust Situation In Pakistan

By Minà Dowlatchahi, Mubarik Ahmed and Keith Cressman

Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is known as one of the most voracious insects, which is polyphagous and can eat all type of vegetation that it comes across.  Desert Locust are a species of swarming, migratory, transboundary short-horned-locusts known to occur in desert areas with favorable agro-ecological conditions. Historically, swarms of Desert Locusts have always been a threat to agricultural production and food security in Africa, Middle East, and Asia. It is an occasional pest, having two to three generations per year, with a life cycle of ~12 weeks. An area of ~16 million squared kilometers comprising of 30 countries is potentially prone to Desert Locust, while another ~29 million squared kilometers of world area covering 60 countries are under the threat of invasion. These insects grow and multiply under favorable agro-ecological conditions, and after consuming the vegetation in one area, they migrate to other regions where food is available for them. They eat up to their own weight daily. Swarms of Desert Locust can be of millions, fly up to 150 kilometers per day, and may travel nearly 2,000 kilometers in their lifetime to find a favorable environment for breeding. They rapidly reproduce and eggs usually hatch after about two weeks. Desert Locust, if not controlled, can generate a food security crisis or famine. East Africa and South West Africa are today fighting a Desert Locust invasion.



The Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations has been in the front-line in helping Governments in the fight against this menace since its establishment in 1945, which coincided with a devasting 14 year-long plague. FAO’s Desert Locust Information System (DLIS) monitors the global locust situation and has been providing forecasts and early warning for more than 50 years. In the early 1960s, three FAO regional Desert Locust commissions were created by Member Countries in Desert Locust prone areas (Western Region with 10 countries in West and North Africa; Central Region with 16 countries in northeast Africa and the Near East; Eastern Region, with 4 countries in South West Asia). The FAO Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in South-West Asia (SWAC) is the oldest of the three regional commissions within the global locust early warning and prevention system. It was established in 1964, and consists of four member countries: Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan. As part of the Commission, a more Technical and Operational Coordination mechanism has been launched by the four countries on 11th March 2020 (SWAC-TOC). The SWAC-TOC meets on weekly basis with the technical teams from the four countries to share information, review and analyze the latest developments of the situation within and across the countries, and coordinate surveillance and control operations in particular along affected border areas. FAO provides the SWAC and SWAC-TOC Secretariat and has been providing technical and operational support to countries to help them prepare for and control this threat and preserve food security in the midst of the COVID19 emergency.

The last serious Desert Locust invasion in the eastern region was in 1993. Beginning in mid-2018, some 25 years later, a major upsurge of Desert Locust began to develop in the Arabian Peninsula as a result of two cyclones that brought heavy rains to the Empty Quarter along the borders on Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. This resulted in three generations of breeding and an 8,000-fold increase in locust numbers during from mid 2018 to early 2019 in an area where survey and control activities could not be conducted due to the extreme remoteness of the area.

In January 2019, new waves of swarms formed in the Empty Quarter and migrated northwards into the interior of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and southwards to Yemen. Breeding and a further increase occurred during the spring in both areas, causing new swarms to migrate to the Indo-Pakistan border and to the Horn of Africa, respectively, at the beginning of last summer. 

The current situation in East Africa remains extremely alarming as yet another generation of breeding has occurred with more swarms forming and maturing in northern and central Kenya, southern Ethiopia and probably in Somalia. This represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods because it coincides with the beginning of the long rains and the planting season. As it is now the beginning of the seasonal rainy period, another generation of breeding will take place that is expected to cause a dramatic increase in locust numbers in East Africa. Locusts will also increase in eastern Yemen and southern Iran in the coming months. Consequently, there is potential for a serious invasion to occur at the beginning of the summer this year by swarms migrating from the Horn of Africa and from southern Iran.

In the Eastern Region, Iran and Pakistan are especially prone as locust breeding is taking place in these areas, also due to the wet winter this year. In Pakistan, 38 percent of the area of Pakistan (60% in Baluchistan, 25% in Sindh and 15% in Punjab) are breeding grounds for the Desert Locust, whereas the entire country is under the threat of invasion if the Desert Locust is not contained in the breeding regions. 


Locust surveillance and control operations and situation analysis in Pakistan 

The Department of Plant Protection (DPP), Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MFSR) is the lead institution tasked with monitoring and managing the Desert Locust threat in Pakistan.  DPP started operations to respond to the Desert Locust threat in February 2019, with support from FAO, and immediately mobilised ground control teams and started operations in Baluchistan near Pasni, Gwadar, Turbat, Uthal, Kharan and Dalbandin.  In May and June 2019, locust swarms from Baluchistan and the migrating population from Iran invaded the Sindh province in areas around Nara Cannal and Khairpur, and thereafter in Tharparker and Umarkot districts. By the end of May 2019, locusts also appeared in the Khairpur district of Nara Desert in the province of Sindh. Later on, locusts were reported in Rahimyar Khan near Cholistan Desert of the Punjab province. The Department of Plant Protection surveyed an area of 932,580 hectares in 2019 and treated 300,595 hectares in three provinces, consuming 150,839 liters of pesticides. Out of the 300,595 hectares that were treated, 20,300 hectares were cleared by aerial spraying.

 In response to Desert Locust appearing in cultivated areas in the four provinces of Pakistan, the scale of the infestations, and the unusually favorable conditions for breeding, the Government declared a “National Emergency on Locust” upon the advice of the Ministry FS&R. This brought together the National Disaster Management Authority, Provincial Agricultural Departments, and the armed forces of Pakistan, wherever required, to coordinate and support large-scale locust control operations in Pakistan.

A comprehensive National Action Plan for Surveillance and Control of Desert Locust in Pakistan, 2020-21 (NAP-DL-Pak) was prepared and adopted by the Cabinet. Among the initiatives to safeguard national food security are efficient coordination with key stakeholders (public and private sector institutions), timely resource mobilization, effective surveillance, control operations and mass awareness activities as per the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) endorsed by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to combat serious threats to agriculture from Desert Locust (DL). The NAP-DL-Pak presents three phases of surveillance and control activities: January to June 2020 (Phase 1), July to December 2020 (Phase 2), and January to June 2021 (Phase 3). The NAP also includes scenarios based on risk assessment to help prioritize surveillance and control operations related to the cropping calendar and agricultural areas. Damage scenarios have been estimated in case control operations are not fully effective in areas where major rabi crops like wheat, chickpea and oilseeds could be severely damaged in the short term.  It has been estimated that the losses to agriculture in case of a locust invasion can reach about PKR 205 billion[1], considering a 15% damage level for the production of wheat, gram and potato only. At 25% damage level, the total potential losses are estimated to be about PKR 353 billion for the rabi crops, and about PKR 464 billion for kharif crops. In the midst of additional impacts by COVID19 on health, livelihoods and food security and nutrition of the most vulnerable communities and populations of Pakistan, it is imperative to contain and control successfully the Desert Locust infestation.

The Government of Pakistan has been taking numerous anticipatory actions in collaboration with FAO, in coordination with neighboring countries, and with the support of international partners to address this threat and be prepared for a timely and effective response. In February 2020, the first phase of NAP for locust surveillance and control started. Currently, surveillance and control operations are well underway in all the locust-affected provinces in Pakistan, involving partner organizations and FAO support.  SUPARCO contributed to demarcate locust prone areas in the affected districts of Pakistan. On the basis of vegetation, soil type and other factors, out of the total area of ~437,900 square kilometers, ~161,720 square kilometers were declared as more susceptible to locust attacks. As of 26th April 2020, overall 124,299 sq.km area has been surveyed in vulnerable areas, and 8,843 square kilometers have been treated.


Until now most of the treatment has been done using specialized Ultra Low Volume (ULV) vehicle-mounted sprayers. The DPP has 20 sprayers that are deployed in the affected areas of Pakistan and moved from one place to another as per requirement. An additional 50 sprayers are currently in the process of being procured to accelerate and facilitate control operations. In addition to this, some 400 vehicles from other relevant institutions contribute to surveys or for limited control using EC pesticides. Moreover, DPP has one operational Beaver aircraft, along with an Army helicopter equipped with ULV sprayers for control. One challenge MFSR and DDP had to deal with was obsolete or not functional equipment for control operations as the last Desert Locust serious outbreak was over 25 years ago. NDMA and provincial agriculture departments, including the military when necessary, have pooled resources to ensure surveillance coverage in Desert Locust prone areas. In order to further build the capacity of DPP, FAO plans to provide around 50 Micronair sprayers, 11 vehicles and 100 eLocust3g GPS satellite communicators for usage in remote areas that do not receive mobile signals, from FAO core funds and matching funds received from UK Aid and Korea. Additional funds could be useful to allow more parallel control operations in the different areas at risk.

The adoption of new technology has allowed a faster and more effective assessment of the locust infestation and helped focus and stage control operations. The Government of China has provided to Government 194,000 ULV grade malathion 96% and 18 EC tractor mounted sprayers. Still some requirements are unfunded.

FAO has provided support to the locust surveillance and control program in Pakistan by providing technical and operational support from the very early onset. Before 2019, FAO was instrumental in providing 14 Defender type vehicles, sprayers, 30 eLocust3 rugged handheld tablets for data collection in the field, and support in undertaking joint surveys and border meetings with neighboring countries, locust forecasting and specialized training of staff. During 2019, substantial support was given by providing spares and POL for vehicles and aircraft, alongside the technical support. FAO expanded the eLocust3 system and launched a mobile phone version, eLocust3m, and provided training to DPP and partner institutions and surveillance teams. As of now, some 100 or more entries are made every day using this mobile application which helps in monitoring the situation better and predicting possible locust migration.

DDP, in coordination with the Provinces and with support from the Food Security and Nutrition Information System in the Ministry, issues daily bulletins for the Federal Minister, with an overview update of the situation in terms of area surveyed by Province, area treated by Provinces, list of districts with locust presence confirmed, performance indicators and a forecast evolution. As of today, in Pakistan, DDP, with support from partners and technical support from FAO, shares the following overall situation overview and risk assessment. 

During the next few weeks, spring breeding will continue in coastal and interior areas of Baluchistan and an increasing number of hoppers will become adults and form groups as well as perhaps a few small swarms. There is no major presence of locust in Sindh, only some in Ghotki, near the border.

Towards the end of May, populations will begin to move from the spring breeding areas in Baluchistan, Pakistan and adjacent areas of southeast Iran to the summer breeding areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. This movement will continue throughout June.

As a result, swarms that are not detected or treated in the spring areas are likely to cross the Indus Valley and reach the desert areas in Tharparkar, Nara and Cholistan in time for the start of the monsoon rains. This year the situation is aggravated as for the first time in many decades, there is a second threat of invasion by swarms in East Africa in late June and during July.