Climate Change

Of pests and climate change

The locust attack in western India is not just another local phenomoenon. Eventually, it traces back to climate change

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 27 January 2020
Locusts at a Rajasthan village. Photo: Mool Ram Saran

It is now pretty clear that the intensity and scale of the Australian bush fires — that have scorched its land, killed people and wildlife, and burnt down homes — has its link with climate change.

Bush fires are common in that part of the world, but these infernos were caused by increasing levels of heat, which have dried the ground and turned it into a tinderbox.

This, combined with prolonged drought, made it an ideal ground for the blaze. But even as international attention focused on the fires, there was a much worse human tragedy playing out in our part of the world, which also has links with climate change.

In December, vast hordes of locusts invaded the fields of Rajasthan and Gujarat devouring crops and destroying farmers’ livelihoods. There are little estimates on the scale of the devastation, but governments have sprayed pesticides over an area thrice the size of Delhi.

But again, like the Australian fires, it can be argued that locust attacks are common in the region, so why the fuss?

My colleagues at Down To Earth have found in their investigations that there is a change in the way locust invasions are happening, and this has to do with unseasonal rainfall, not just in India, but in the other breeding grounds of this insect — from the Red Sea coast to the Arabian Peninsula, Iran and Rajasthan.

This insect grows exponentially and an average locust swarm, believe it or not, can have 8 million critters that can devour as much food in one day as 2,500 people or 10 elephants. In the first breeding period, locusts increase by 20 times; in the second, by 400 times; and, in the third breeding period, by 16,000 times.

This simply means that if there is an extended period of breeding, they will grow in extremely large numbers. It is no surprise then that locust swarms remind us of famine.

This year, the swarms were much bigger and led to greater devastation. Why? There are many linkages that need scrutiny. First, it was the unseasonal rain in Pakistan’s Sindh province and western Rajasthan. This desert region of India is not the ideal breeding ground for locusts. The insect needs wet and green lands to proliferate. But last year, the region received rain ahead of schedule, which is why there was news about locust attacks as early as in May 2019. These were ignored. Then the monsoon got extended — it did not retreat till October.

Rains continued and the insect, which would have migrated back towards West Asia and Africa, stayed and bred. Second, Cyclone Mekunu in May 2018 and then cyclone Luban in October 2018 brought extreme rain to the Arabian Peninsula creating lakes in the desert, which are the ideal conditions for breeding. That year — unknown and untold to the outside world — these already poor and war-stricken regions were devastated and devoured. Then there was heavy rain in the Red Sea coast — also unseasonal — in January 2019. An extended rain period of nine months enabled the creature to multiply profusely.

In fact, scientists working on locust infestations say their number rose so high that this region could not produce enough food. Simultaneously, with cyclones, wind patterns changed; locusts move with the winds. Normally, locusts come to India with the monsoon winds. In 2019, scientists say locusts crossed the Red Sea towards Africa and the Persian Gulf to reach Iran, which, is in any case, its winter resting place. From here, they made their way, in deadly swarms, to Pakistan and India.

When the locusts returned from Gujarat and Rajasthan to Pakistan-Iran in January / February 2020, there were already third-generation insects that had bred due to the extended monsoon in Rajasthan. That’s why, this year, the damage is much more. Farmers are crippled. There is enough evidence now that unseasonal rains or the increasing frequency of cyclones in the region is linked to climate change.

So, it does not take rocket science to understand what we are beginning to see in our inter-dependent and globalised world. It is not just about the flight of people or capital. It is not just about the greenhouse gases that know no boundaries. It is about the globalisation of insect infestations and pest attacks because of a changing weather.

But what makes all this deadly in our intensely unequal and information-divided world is that we know about Australia’s fires, but not about the locust attacks happening in our backyard. We are not making this connection. We can’t understand the pain of our people — from Africa to Asia — who are already living in a climate-risked future. So, let’s forget about telling them, or preaching them, about climate change. Let’s get our own act together. We are the problem. They are our victims. This is not right.

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