FAO in Pakistan

By Mina Dowlatchahi, Keith Cressman, Aamer Irshad, Mubarik Ahmed

Located in the middle of the annual Desert Locust migration corridor between Iran and India, Pakistan is highly exposed to damages caused by this highly destructive pest. Due to a changed pattern of rains, starting from second half of 2019, Desert Locust swarms started forming in great number. There was a rapid invasion, including into large farming areas in various districts, which posed a dangerous threat to the agriculture sector and food security of millions of people.
Because of timely and decisive measures, the Desert Locust situation has now improved significantly in southwest Asia as a whole and Pakistan in particular, and there should be no major threat in the coming months. While Desert Locust total eradication is unrealistic especially given the scale of the recent upsurge, they can now easily be contained and mitigated with the enhanced capacity of the country being put in place. Suppression and containment was the goal, and Pakistan succeeded. The upsurge has been stopped this summer by the large-scale surveillance activities and intensive control measures undertaken by Pakistan, India and Iran.
Geographically located in the center of the region and hosting both spring and summer breeding areas, the role of Pakistan cannot be underestimated in the success. This is the result of extensive surveillance, strategically planned and technically well-executed control operations in the country. Strong coordination at federal and provincial levels with all relevant actors carried out under the National Locust Control Centre (NLCC) set up in Islamabad increased the effectiveness of the response. The leadership of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research (MNFSR), implementation of field activities by the Department of Plant Protection (DPP), and operational support of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) ensured a timely, effective and technically sound handling of the locust emergency. FAO technical, operational and early warning support, facilitating interregional cooperation, coordination with the international community, including through the FAO international Desert Locust Appeal reinforced the efforts of the government.
The NLCC proved a very effective emergency response coordination mechanism that bridged the operational needs of the MNFSR and Provinces in dealing with the Desert Locust emergency, and also briefed and invited the support of the international community with FAO assistance. The NLCC ensured deployment in a coordinated manner and with timeliness of equipment and human capital existing within the country with different institutions or help bring from outside equipment required for the surveillance and control operations. For example, NLCC was instrumental in securing helicopters, airplanes, pesticides, vehicles, PPE for the control teams, facilitating access to desert areas in far flung districts, supporting  each province in the coordination of surveillance and/or control teams on the ground and of aerial pesticide spray, spearheading local manufacturing of sprayers, and including setting up of a Helpline. NLCC established a 24/7 coordination set up, and served as interface with several Ministries and other stakeholders such as Information Technology, Finance and Foreign, national space agency and national consortium of Engineering. NLCC also coordinated the preparation of the updated National Action Plan.
DPP and its Control Rooms in Karachi and provinces and Agriculture Departments and all the field teams, with their hard work around the clock, were instrumental in providing technical insights as to the strategic deployment of surveillance teams, and allocation of sprayers and setting up the agenda of the control teams programs, carrying out surveillance and control and feeding information to NLCC.
Another element of success proved to be the strong commitment of Pakistan to the interregional Technical and Operational Coordination (TOC) mechanism that was established in mid-March 2020 following a Ministerial meeting of the FAO Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in South-West Asia (SWAC). Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan have been regularly participating in the SWAC-TOC meetings facilitated by FAO. Not one of the over 26 weekly meetings went amiss by any of the countries. These meetings allowed to exchange information on the Desert Locust infestations and control operations, provided solid threat analysis based on country level information, addressed technical questions, facilitated information exchange and discussed regularly the forecast of the possible evolution of the Locust threat across the Region and possible anticipated movements within each country, while keeping in watch the global situation in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
The Prime Minister declared a National Emergency for Desert Locust on 31 January 2020 in Pakistan. The FAO Director General QU Dongyu visited Okara in mid-February, one of the 61 districts that were affected by Desert Locust, and one very unusual district right in the middle of food basket of the country for Desert Locust infestation – mostly due to the changing climatic conditions, otherwise free from Desert Locust for more than 60 years. The DG FAO discussed the emergency with the Minister of Food Security and Research and FAO provided immediate support.
The challenges were many, several of a structural nature. The MNFSR and the Department of Plant Protection had not had to deal with a Desert Locust upsurge since more than 28 years. The Ministry quickly realized having to fight the upsurge with insufficient funding, operational resources, obsolete equipment, and an eroded expertise that happened over the years and left the DPP with only a few high level experts. COVID19 environment and lockdowns restricted movements and impacted the emergency response at the onset in the months of April and May. FAO helped with immediate operational support, forecasts, technical advice and capacity building, IT support and equipment for surveillance, monitoring, coordination support and facilitated the inter-regional dialogue and information exchange throughout the emergency period. FAO mobilized resource for pesticide sprayers, vehicles, and surveillance equipment from FAO core funds, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (UK), South Korea and South-South Cooperation from China.
As a result Pakistan ramped up its surveillance efforts significantly by May-June and has now around 1000 surveillance teams deployed on the ground, in most areas at risk of locust breeding. The surveillance teams have been equipped by FAO with the eLocust3 suite of digital tools for data collection and real-time transmission. These innovative tools were deployed to improve early warning by enabling rapid detection of Desert Locust outbreaks and the green vegetation that is likely to become sites of locust infestations, hence allowing a more strategic approach to surveillance and control, in real time. Pakistan has undertaken a massive surveillance and control operation -- in all the provinces -- and so far over 600,000 km² has been surveyed and 11,300 km² treated during 2020. These surveillance and control operations were carried out from KP to Punjab, from Sindh to Balochistan, along the borders with Iran and with India, across the desert areas and in cropping areas. This has been a massive scale of operations.
The presence of locust as of last week in Pakistan was restricted to one district only, Lasbella in Balochistan where surveillance and control operations were underway. Due to the peculiar agro-ecology, this region has overlapping spring and summer breeding seasons and can become a nursery for locust breeding for extended periods in a very short time. Although the Desert Locust infestation is contained currently, it is not yet time to put the guard down, and continued vigorous monitoring, with particular attention to Cholistan and Tharparkar and along the Indo-Pakistan border to detect any signs of a second generation breeding of Desert Locust is necessary with maintained readiness.
The emergency is over – with NLCC winding down in Pakistan with a success story made of fast adoption of new technology and digital innovation, real time data use for decision making, effective cross-sectoral and federal to provincial coordination within country, coupled with inter-regional coordination with neighboring countries, and control operations within country. Control operations in other affected countries across the Indian Ocean avoided the expected Desert Locust invasion from East Africa.
One lesson learnt is that changing climate conditions are drivers in locust infestations and increases in other transboundary pests and diseases. Addressing these challenges requires investment to make the country capable to handle the menace. A World Bank funded project on locust (LEAFS)  will provide USD 200 million to equip the country with improved technical capacity for surveillance and control, meteorological data gathering, livelihood protection and rehabilitation and  strengthen national capacity for early warning and early response, linking these efforts to international and provincial existing locust surveillance and control networks, and the capacity of MNFSR by augmenting the food security and Nutrition information system (FNSIS). The emergency highlighted the importance to be ready to effectively counter increased transboundary pests and diseases at scale, that can otherwise affect significantly Food Security and push more vulnerable communities into poverty, in an already COVID19 impacted and more fragile economy.