While the world grapples to contain the spread of the coronavirus, a different breed of pesky pestilence is threatening the food security of many regions, including some parts of Asia—locusts! These little insects with their voracious appetites have already ravaged crops in the African Horn, Middle East and some parts of Asia. Following the routes of the ancient invaders, the desert locusts—scientifically known as Schistocerca Gregaria—have now travelled all the way from Iran and Pakistan, through Afghanistan, and entered the northern states of India, and are now on the way to the very heart of the country—its capital: Delhi.
But this happens every year. This is not an unusual or exceptional phenomenon— locusts typically begin their onslaught in the western parts of India around June and carry on with their campaign of pillage and ransack till November. Except this year, these insatiable crop-thirsty bugs had been spotted as early as April. The result: the worst locust infestation India has experienced in almost three decades. According to a report by the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, this year the locusts have already destroyed over 50,000 hectares of cropland.
The situation in Pakistan is perhaps worse, which as per Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates, will "incur losses of about 2bn pounds in winter crops, such as wheat, and a further 2.3bn pounds in the summer crops being planted now." The country, already struggling to contain the rapid spread of Covid-19, had to take support from its all-weather ally, Turkey. According to reports, Turkey has provided purpose-built Piper Brave spray aircraft along with four crew members to the Pakistan Air Force to fight the resilient insects.
This rapid and sudden upsurge of the locust population that is unleashing destruction globally can be attributed to aberrant and erratic climatic behaviour triggered by global warming. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggests that "Heavy rains and cyclones have triggered a recent surge in desert locust populations, causing an outbreak to develop in Sudan and Eritrea that is rapidly spreading along both sides of the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and Egypt".
And while it is apparent that climatic malfunctions are resulting in disasters in many parts of the world, the most pressing question for Bangladesh is, how much of a risk these theologically ominous insects are to us? Especially in the context of the recent attack of a similar locust-like pest in Cox's Bazar's Teknaf upazila, where the insects consumed leaves of several trees in the compound of a house. This incident rang alarm-bells among the locals, who thought these were the dreaded desert locusts. Later it was confirmed that while the spotted grasshoppers were potentially harmful, they were not the menacing desert locusts.
"The hot-tropical climate of Bangladesh is not a suitable habitat for the desert locusts. The wet and green environment of Bangladesh will not be favourable for these insects, which is why the country has never had to face a desert locust attack in its history. Moreover, if we look at the direction of the wind which facilitates the flight path of desert locusts—locusts cannot fly against the wind—it is highly unlikely that they will manage to come all the way to Bangladesh from western India or even Madhya Pradesh," said Shykh Seraj, an award-winning development journalist, also an agricultural sector expert, while discussing the subject with this writer.
So, there we go scot-free, right?
"Nothing can be said for certain, especially with all the spillover effects of climate change that we are battling every day. While desert locusts are historically not a threat for Bangladesh, we have to monitor the situation," added Shykh Seraj, a view shared by Kabirul Bashar, a professor of entomology at Jahangirnagar University.
Professor Bashar suggested that we actively track the movements of the desert locusts in India. Based on this, along with assessing the geographic and topographic barriers that might affect the movement of these hungry pests, we should be able to map their potential migration path. "We cannot afford to be complacent simply because Bangladesh does not have the right climate for the habitation of desert locusts. The concerned authorities can consider forming a committee of experts who will monitor and map the movements of the desert locusts and suggest ways of preparing ourselves, just in case the locusts manage to pay us a visit after all. Mapping the movement of locusts will also help us estimate how much they might take to reach Bangladesh and prepare a prediction model, if they can manage to turn towards this direction. And we have to be ready with a concrete plan, the right insecticide and the appropriate tools needed to apply them, in a worst case scenario."
So, amidst all the negative news we come across every day—this writer for one, keeps churning out pieces that are all about the doom and gloom, this is one good news after all: if we look at historical patterns and environmental factors, we might just be spared an invasion by desert locusts. Unlike human foreign invaders, these ravenous insects are not going to travel further South or East from Madhya Pradesh.
But as both Shykh Seraj and professor Bashar suggested, secure in the knowledge that Bangladesh does not provide the right thriving space for desert locusts, we cannot afford to become complacent. That would be our mistake. In the kind of unpredictable world we live in—and a lot of it indeed has to do with climate change—you cannot take anything for granted. After all, even a few months ago, how many of us knew that in an age in which we consider mining the moon and plan settlements in space, humans would fight tooth and nail to contain a tiny flu-like virus!
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem