Sindh invaded by ‘army of locusts’ amid fears of cotton devastation

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A locust lands on the camera as surveyors pass by infested crops in Mirwah subdivision of Pakistan’s southern Sindh province on June 18, 2019 (Photo by Nisar Khaskheli)
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A cotton farmer looks out at a small aircraft of the Department of Plant Protection as it sprays pesticides in Mirwah and Nara deserts of Pakistan’s southern Sindh province on June 15, 2019 (Photo by Nisar Khaskheli)
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A locust attacking a pomegranate plant in Dalbandin district of Balochistan on June 10, 2019. (Photo by Muhammad Akbar Notezai)
Updated 23 June 2019

Sindh invaded by ‘army of locusts’ amid fears of cotton devastation

  • The locust swarms migrated from the Red Sea and entered Pakistan through Iran
  • Deployment of air and ground pesticide underway to control spread of infestation to Sindh’s cotton fields

KARACHI: Like a guard in a watchtower, Nisar Khaskheli, a cotton farmer in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh, does not let his eyes leave the horizon for long. 
He is keeping a lookout for a bright yellow swarm of millions of desert locusts who inch closer to Sindh’s 200,000 acres of cotton crop every day. According to him, they are now only four kilometers away from the irrigated lands of Pakistan’s second-largest cotton producing province, and the farmers are sleepless with worry, despite the government’s deployment of aircraft and pesticide-mounted vehicles to prevent an attack on the country’s prize crop.
The emergency pesticide deployment is not unwarranted: Home-grown cotton runs Pakistan’s textile industry which is its largest job provider and foreign exchange earner. As the country struggles to stave off a balance of payments’ crisis following a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, it cannot afford to lose its cotton, which is already forecast to fall to a 17 year low this month according to official data. 
“On 25th May, we spotted the locusts for the first time when they were about 18 km away from irrigated land in Sindh,” Khaskheli, who is also president of a local agriculture chamber, told Arab News. 
But within days, he said, owing to favorable weather conditions for breeding and hatching, there was a huge growth in their numbers. 
“It forced us to raise alarm bells and inform the authorities,” he said.
Desert locusts, swarming short-horned grasshoppers, have been destroying crops in Africa and Asia for centuries. Their ability to move in huge swarms with great speed has earned them notoriety as one of the most devastating agricultural plagues in the world. 
From the Red Sea coast of Sudan and Eritria, the locusts first emerged in January this year. By February, they had hit Saudi Arabia and Iran before entering Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province in March. 
“Saudi Arabia quickly launched a control operation, but the undetected and uncontrolled gregarious locusts moved toward Iran,” Muhammad Tariq Khan, director of the Department of Plant Protection (DPP) at Pakistan’s Ministry of National Food Security and Research, told Arab News.
Despite a massive control operation in Iran, Khan said some unrestrained and undetected locust swarms migrated to Balochistan. 
“The conditions (for breeding) were conducive for them in Balochistan due to rainfall,” he said.
Though Balochistan is not a major cotton province like Sindh and Punjab, the huge swarms of locusts have destroyed pomegranate, watermelon, grain and cotton crops in their path according to locals, though the exact extent of the damage is not yet officially known. 
According to Liaquat Shahwani, Balochistan government’s spokesperson, the damage in his province has been controlled.
“Despite a massive attack, the damage was not too high,” he said, but did not share specific estimates of crop damage. 
Most farmers disagreed, and said the destruction was colossal. 
“They haven’t even spared the trees,” said Naseer Baloch, a farmer in Kharan, an area infested by locusts in Balochistan, alongside districts Chaghi, Washuk, Pasni, Turbat, Uthal, Dalbandin, Panjgur and parts of Kechh. 
“They attack like an army and when they advance, it looks like the earth is moving,” he said.
The last major locust infestations in Pakistan were back in 1993 and 1997, though the government lacks credible statistics to quantify the damage in both instances.
After the Balochistan outbreak, the DPP says it has moved its ground control teams to launch control operations in affected areas, but that some locust groups were now moving toward the Tharparkar and Nara deserts of Sindh, and also toward India’s Rajasthan desert.
Sindh’s agriculture minister, Muhammad Ismail Rahoo, said his department found out about the locust infestation on June 3rd and was making serious efforts to safeguard its cotton crop. 
It is still unclear why news of the infestation has taken so long to reach Sindh, despite crops affected in Balochistan three months ago. 
“We are not big landlords, and our crop is our only source of income,” Sindh farmer Khaskheli said. “The money we make from it helps pay our bills, pay for hospitals, our children’s schools, their weddings.”
“If the locusts are not controlled, they will not just damage our crops and deprive us of livelihood,” he said. “They will wipe out billions of rupees.”
Then he shielded his eyes from the sun, and turning away, continued to stand guard over his cotton fields.

Pakistani policeman killed, 4 wounded in hand grenade attack

Updated 6 sec ago

Pakistani policeman killed, 4 wounded in hand grenade attack

  • Officers transported the dead and wounded to a nearby hospital after the assault in Mardan
  • No one immediately claimed responsibility and the attackers’ identities were not released

PESHAWAR: Attackers threw a hand grenade at a roadside police post in northwest Pakistan on Thursday, killing an officer and wounding four people before fleeing the scene, local officials said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility and the attackers’ identities were not released after the assault in Mardan, a district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan.

Police spokesman Adnan Khan said officers transported the dead and wounded to a nearby hospital. He provided no further details and said officers were still investigating.

Pakistan’s northwestern former tribal regions share a lengthy porous border with Afghanistan and for years served as a safe haven for militants. The military carried out massive operations to clear the area, forcing the militants to escape into Afghanistan or hide in other areas near the border. 

'In the mouth of dragons': Melting glaciers threaten Pakistan’s north

Updated 07 July 2022

'In the mouth of dragons': Melting glaciers threaten Pakistan’s north

  • Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, more than anywhere else on Earth outside the poles 
  • Rising global temperatures linked to climate change are causing the glaciers to rapidly melt 

HASSANABAD, Pakistan: As dawn broke over Javed Rahi’s Pakistani mountain village, a loud boom shattered the silence and a torrent of water came cascading down from the melting glacier nearby, followed by a thick cloud of smoke.

Rahi, a retired maths teacher, had been due to attend his nephew’s wedding the day the flood rushed through the village of Hassanabad.

“I expected women and children to sing and dance... Instead I heard them screaming in terror,” the 67-year-old said.

“It was like doomsday.”

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, the remains of two electrical power stations are seen after they were swept away by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

The flood — which occurred as a heatwave was gripping South Asia in May — swept away nine homes in the village and damaged half a dozen more.

The water also washed away two small hydro plants and a bridge that connected the remote community to the outside world.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, locals and tourists drive through a temporary bridge after the main bridge was swept away by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, more than anywhere else on Earth outside the poles.

Rising global temperatures linked to climate change are causing the glaciers to rapidly melt, creating thousands of glacial lakes.

The government has warned that 33 of these lakes — all located in the spectacular Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges that intersect in Pakistan — are at risk of bursting and releasing millions of cubic meters of water and debris in just a few hours, like in Hassanabad.

At least 16 such glacial lake outburst floods linked to heatwaves have occurred this year already, compared with an average of five or six per year, the Pakistani government said earlier this week.

The devastation caused by such floods makes recovery for impacted communities an arduous task.

After disaster struck Hassanabad, Rahi and fellow villagers who lost their homes had to move to a nearby camp for displaced people.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, local resident Javed Rahi shows damages in his home caused by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, more than anywhere else on Earth outside the poles. (AFP)

Inside their makeshift tents are the few belongings they managed to salvage and mattresses to sleep on.

“We never thought we would fall from riches to rags,” Rahi said.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, local residents pick cherries from a tree beside tents setup after their homes were swept by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

Pakistan is the world’s eighth most vulnerable country to extreme weather caused by climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index compiled by the environmental NGO Germanwatch.

The country is experiencing earlier, hotter and more frequent heatwaves, with temperatures already hitting 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) this year.

Floods and droughts in recent years have killed and displaced thousands of people, destroyed livelihoods, and damaged infrastructure.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, residents removes a door from a damaged house after a lake outburst because of a melting glacier in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

According to the UN Development Programme, a lack of information on glacial changes in Pakistan makes it difficult to predict hazards originating from them.

Although Hassanabad had an early warning system in place — including cameras that monitor water flow in glacial lakes — the villagers believed they were living high enough above the water to avoid any impact, according to local officials.

Zahida Sher, who lost her home in the Hassanabad flood, said the power of the water took out buildings that had previously been considered safe.

The mountain communities depend on their livestock, orchards, farms and tourism for survival, but climate change threatens all of it.

“Our economy is agrarian and people don’t have enough resources to move from here,” said Sher, a researcher for a local development NGO.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, residents removes a door from a damaged house after a lake outburst because of a melting glacier in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

Siddique Ullah Baig, a disaster risk reduction analyst in the northern region, said around seven million people are vulnerable to such events, but many are not aware of the gravity of the threat.

“People are still constructing homes in areas declared as a red zone for flooding. Our people are not aware and prepared to deal with any possible disaster,” he told AFP.

Further north of Hassanabad lies Passu, another precarious hamlet that has already lost around 70 percent of its population and area after being hit by floods and natural river erosion.

The village is sandwiched between White glacier in the south, Batura glacier in the north and the Hunza River in the east — three forces given the respectful title of “dragons” because of their destructive power.

“Passu village lies in the mouths of these three dragons,” said local scholar Ali Qurban Mughani, pointing to the centuries-old bodies of dense ice towering over the village.

As he spoke, laborers worked on a protective concrete wall on a riverbank — a bid to shield the village from further erosion.

Kamran Iqbal invested 500,000 rupees (around $2,400) that he borrowed from a local NGO to open a picnic spot for visitors with a breathtaking view.

The beauty of the glaciers has made the region one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

Business was flourishing until a “horror night” last year when a flash flood washed away Iqbal’s investment.

Even the most ambitious international climate targets of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century could lead to the melting of one third of Pakistan’s glaciers, the Nepal-based scientific organization the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development said in a 2019 study.

“In 2040 we could start facing problems of (water) scarcity that could lead to drought and desertification — and before that we may have to cope with frequent and intense riverine flooding, and of course flash floods,” said Aisha Khan, head of the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization, which researches glaciers in Pakistan.

Home to more than 220 million people, Pakistan says it is responsible for less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet it remains highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and natural resources.

“There are no factories or industries here that can cause pollution... We have a clean environment,” said Amanullah Khan, a 60-year village elder in Passu.

“But when it comes to the threats posed by climate change, we are at the forefront.”

Asif Sakhi, a political activist from Passu, said mountain communities were increasingly fearful about the perils posed by glaciers.

“This area belongs to glaciers; we have occupied it,” the 32-year-old said. 

Pakistan reports highest single-day coronavirus death toll in almost four months

Updated 07 July 2022

Pakistan reports highest single-day coronavirus death toll in almost four months

  • Pakistan reports 3.77% positivity rate, 872 new infections on Thursday
  • As coronavirus cases rise, Pakistan urges caution ahead of Eid holidays

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s health ministry on Thursday reported nine deaths from coronavirus, the highest single-day death toll since March 8, signaling a rise in the South Asian country’s cases of the infection.   

After reporting a significant decline in coronavirus cases over the past couple of months, Pakistan did away with almost all coronavirus restrictions. However, in recent weeks, the country has seen a spike in COVID-19 infections.

The national COVID-19 positivity ratio rose to 3.77 percent in the last 24 hours as nine people passed away from the infection, the National Institute of Health (NIH) said on Thursday. The last time Pakistan reported nine deaths from the infection was on March 8.

Health authorities conducted 23,125 coronavirus tests in the last 24 hours, of which 872 turned out to be positive. Over 165 patients are currently in critical care across the country.

Pakistan disbanded the National Command and Operations Center, its main pandemic response body, on March 31 as infections fell to the lowest since the outbreak began in 2020.

However, on May 23, Pakistan reconstituted the NCOC at the NIH after health officials detected a new omicron sub-variant in a passenger arriving from Qatar. The new Omicron sub-variant is said to be highly infectious, though not as deadly as previous coronavirus strains.

This week, the NCOC issued fresh guidelines for Eid Al-Adha.

“Eid UI Adha prayers should be organized in open spaces under stringent COVID protocols. In case of any compulsion to offer the prayers inside mosques, then all windows and doors should be kept open for ventilation / to minimize the chances of disease spread,” the NCOC said in a statement earlier this week.

The body said up to three Eid prayers should be organized at a single venue with staggered timings to allow maximum people to offer prayers with COVID-19 protocols in place.

“All ulemas leading Eid prayers should be sensitised to keep sermons ... short so that people remain present in the prayer venues for a brief duration,” the guidelines said. “Efforts should be made to discourage sick, elderly and young children from attending Eid prayers.”

People without face masks should not be allowed to enter prayer venues, the NCOC said, adding that prayer venues should have multiple entry and exit points and venue organizers should ensure the availability of hand sanitisers.

The NCOC said efforts would be made to promote and encourage central and collective sacrifices through various public, private and community organizations, while ensuring adherence to the COVID-19 protocols of mask-wearing, social distancing and avoidance of crowds.

'Bad idea': Pessimism over outcome as Pakistan formally okays talks with local Taliban 

Updated 07 July 2022

'Bad idea': Pessimism over outcome as Pakistan formally okays talks with local Taliban 

  • Parliamentary Committee on National Security on Tuesday formally approved negotiations with TTP militants
  • TTP extended cease-fire indefinitely after talks with Pakistani tribal elders mediated by Afghan Taliban in June 

ISLAMABAD: Experts this week called holding negotiations with local Taliban militants “the only solution” for the government to end militancy in the country but many were skeptical about whether the process would lead to a positive outcome after having failed in the past.

The Pakistani Taliban — known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since 2007, including a 2014 assault on a school in which 134 students were killed. The group is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, but pledges allegiance to them.

Pakistan has since 2007 carried out a number of military operations against the TTP, but, despite reducing the militant group’s footprint, with most fighters fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan, it has not been able to fully stop attacks, which had begun to rise again along its western border in recent months.

On June 4, the TTP extended a cease-fire with the government for an indefinite period, after two-day talks with a delegation of Pakistani tribal elders facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, who head the government in Kabul since US-led forces withdrew last year.

This week, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired an in-camera meeting in Islamabad attended by over 100 lawmakers and officials to deliberate on talks with the Pakistani Taliban. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security subsequently gave its formal approval to hold the talks and also set up a parliamentary committee to oversee the process and ensure it was carried out within the ambit of the constitution.

Pakistan media has widely reported that at the heart of talks is an offer to accommodate the TTP with a safe passage back to Pakistan from Afghanistan in exchange for the group agreeing to a long-term cease-fire, dissolving its organization and possibly even joining mainstream politics.

“Pakistan wants to do it [talks] because the militancy problem is not over and they have realized that the only solution to this problem is that local Taliban should be integrated into the mainstream,” Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Because for how long can military operations go on?”

Though the Afghan Taliban were brokering talks with the TTP as they had to uphold an international obligation not to let any militants use Afghan soil to attack another country, Mohmand said the Kabul government also did not want to push the TTP forcibly to come to the table or agree to a deal.

Afghan Taliban leaders have in the past openly praised the TTP for its contributions to the insurgency against the United States and the former Afghan government, and hinted that it can’t abandon the Pakistani affiliate.

“Afghan Taliban are the facilitators and they are playing this role because for some time TTP fighters fought with them in Afghanistan,” Mohmand added. “But if they [Afghan Taliban] will force them toward Pakistan, then TTP will blame them for their arrests [in Pakistan].”
Speaking about the main demands of the militant group, the diplomat said the TTP wanted a resolution of the issue of missing persons, compensation for losses caused to them during military operations, and for Pakistan to scrap a 2018 law that did away with the semi-independent status of the former tribal regions, FATA, that dates back to British colonial rule.

The TTP also wants a substantial reduction of Pakistani military forces from the former tribal areas, which border Afghanistan and where the group was mostly harboring before being driven out through military operations.

“Government will not accept the revival of the tribal system as it requires a constitutional amendment,” Mohmand said. “Also, there is little hope on missing persons, so in reality, they can only move forward on the compensation issue.”

Abdul Basit Khan, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the government’s negotiations with the TTP were a “sensible move” to reduce violence in Pakistan’s border regions.

“Pakistan wants to reduce violence and they have achieved it as due to the cease-fire, attacks have already gone down,” Khan told Arab News, adding that there was “no military solution” to the TTP problem.

“Parliamentary committee on national security has taken a clear position that only those demands which fall within the Pakistani constitutional framework will be accepted and any demand contradictory to it will not be accepted, such as reversal of FATA merger,” Khan said. “And TTP will also not be allowed to keep arms even if it is repatriated to Pakistan.”

Former diplomat, Ayaz Wazir, supported the talks but was skeptical there could be “permanent solution” unless the people of the former tribal regions were included in the decision-making process. 

“The real problem with the decision-makers is that they never take people of FATA into the confidence, neither at the time of military operations, nor during the merger, and that vacuum has always provided space to the TTP to resurface,” he said. 

Last year, the two sides had agreed to a cease-fire but talks broke down due to a disagreement over the release of TTP prisoners held by Pakistan, according to local media.

Another analyst, retired Brig. Mahmood Shah, a former chief of security in the tribal areas, said another round of negotiations with TTP after previous failures was a “bad idea” that was bound to fail. He also said the Pakistani constitution did not allow for talks with any group that challenged the nation’s sovereignty. 

“These talks cannot succeed and will never produce a sustainable solution as TTP will not back down from its core ideology and keep pursuing it with the use of violence as a tool,” Shah told Arab News.

Between 2006 and 2015, nearly 50 militant groups declared war on the Pakistani state, conducting over 16,000 terror attacks, according to government figures. More than 80,000 people have been killed in the violence, which cost over $150 billion in losses to the Pakistani economy and drove 3.5 million people from their homes in the tribal regions where military operations were carried out.

“Pakistan have thrown them [TTP] out of tribal areas after extensive military operations and a lot of sacrifices,” said. “What was the rationale of all those previous actions if they will now be allowed to return?” 

At Pakistan’s largest cattle market, ‘Turkish’ double-humped camels the main event

Updated 28 min 47 sec ago

At Pakistan’s largest cattle market, ‘Turkish’ double-humped camels the main event

  • Owner Hajji Shahdad brought six of the “special” camels from his hometown Quetta, has sold off three
  • Over three thousand camels up for sale at Karachi Cattle Market, brought from all corners of Pakistan

KARACHI: While the Karachi Cattle Market, Pakistan’s largest, is generally a busy place ahead of the Eid Al-Adha holiday, one corner of the crowded bazaar stood out this week: the stall featuring three double-humped camels that their owner said were a Turkish breed.

Every year, sacrificial animals worth millions are bought and sold at the Karachi Cattle Market located on the outskirts of the megacity and spread over 2,000 acres of land. For sale this year are 425,000 animals, divided across 14 blocks in the bazaar.

While Muslims often slaughter sheep at the annual Eid Al-Adha “feast of the sacrifice” which falls on Sunday, many Pakistanis, especially the wealthy, think bigger, flocking to cattle markets to find camels for auction.

And so, while the loud voices of customers haggling over the prices of animals hung over the entire bazaar, they were the loudest at the Turkish camel stall, where a large crowd had gathered and many customers, young and old, posed for selfies.

A spokesperson for the cattle market, Asif Ali Syed, told Arab News over three thousand camels were up for sale at the bazaar.

“A thing which is less is rare, and people like rare [things],” Hajji Shahdad, the owner of the double-humped camels, told Arab News, saying he had brought six of the “special” camels from his hometown Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, and already sold off three.

Haji Shahdad, a trader from Quetta, seen with one of his two-humped camels at the Karachi Cattle Market, Pakistan, on July 4, 2022 (AN Photo by S.A.Babar)

Arab News could not independently verify if the camels were Turkish, though Shahdad said they were purchased by traders on the border of Turkey and then brought to Quetta via Afghanistan. One type of double-humped camel, the large Bactrian camel, hails from Central Asia.

“We had heard Karachi is a hub for passionate people,” he said. “This is why we looked after them [camels] for six to seven months and then brought them here for sale.”

Shahdad described his camels as “powerful and loyal creatures” that unlike Pakistani camels did not need to wear nose pegs, which are used to stir and brake camels and control them.

“The camels that we have in Pakistan have nose-pegs but no such thing on this,” he said, tapping the nose of one of his camels. “You can take it anywhere by just holding the rope ... It also sits in vehicles with ease.” 

Two-humped camels at the Karachi Cattle Market, Pakistan, on July 4, 2022 (AN Photo by S.A.Babar)

But despite the camels’ unique traits, Shahdad said he was not able to fetch the prices he had hoped for.

While regular camels at the market sold for up to Rs800,000 ($3,850), he had sought a sum of Rs1,200,000-1,500,000 (up to $5,775) for his double-humped camels. 

But the best offers he got ranged between Rs800,000-1,000,000 ($4,800). 

“Everyone is offering prices according to their status,” Shahdad said, shrugging as he spoke about people’s reduced purchasing power this year due to soaring inflation, which has crossed 21 percent and is at a 13-year-high in Pakistan.

The livestock trader scoffed at other sellers who he said made up unique names and traits for their animals to spike the interest of buyers.

Reading off the names of some of the camels being sold at the market — Prince, or Sultan, which means emperor — Shahdad said he didn’t need gimmicks to sell his animals. 

“These are two-humped camels,” he said with a smile as he patted an animal, “and famous with this name only.”