People in Mumbai got the scare of their lives last week. Groggy from Covid-fatigue, they saw a new pandemic staring at them through their windows. Locust swarms. Fortunately, these fears turned out to be the result of WhatsApp rumour mills. Other cities like Jaipur have not been so lucky. In recent days, locust swarms of horrendous size extending several kilometers in the air have invaded Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and have now drifted into the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra, devouring crops and vegetation in their path.
Normally a once-in-30-years phenomenon, this biblical-style plague from the sky has only added to the misery of the corona virus lockdown. This invasion couldn’t have come at a worse time. On the streets of Jaipur and in farms across the north, people are out with insecticide sprayers, and clanging vessels in an attempt to save their crops. In the corridors of power, the old environmentalists and climate-change wallahs, the perennial prophets of doom, are back in demand.
The sheer size of these swarms make them unmanageable. Travelling with the wind, these mile-long swarms can travel 150 km in a day; and with 40 million insects to a square kilometer, feed on the equivalent of their own body weight, and consume what 35,000 people eat in a day. As much as 50,000 hectares of croplands may have been destroyed so far, creating the possibility of food shortage if the swarms multiply.
It appears the problem originated with heavy unseasonal rains in the Horn of Africa and Kenya. These were triggered by the Indian Ocean phenomenon called the ‘Dipole’–wherein the warmer waters move to the West of the Ocean near Africa and the cooler waters drift to the East towards Australia. Last year end, the Dipole was amplified by rising temperatures due to global warming, thereby pushing more warm water towards the African coast.
This set off heavy rains in arid areas in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, while the cooler water in the East created the drought and bush fires in Australia a few months ago. In the desert regions of Africa, these rains sprung vegetation unnaturally and became the breeding ground for the larvae of desert locusts which multiplied on huge swathes of land undetected for months.
By the time these breeding grounds were discovered, the swarms had lifted spreading havoc in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. The science magazine Nature points out that it is these swarms that have crossed the Red Sea to Yemen and Saudi Arabia and even reached Iran, Pakistan and finally Rajasthan, in India. The destruction wrought will threaten the food supplies of 20 million people later this season as
well as pasture for millions of heads of cattle, Nature estimates.
Sparrows in China
Man, plant and animal life, forests, weather conditions, the sources of water and air–the totality we call Nature–works as a tenuous balance between these various parts. If the balance is disturbed, the reaction can often be apocalyptic. When the Chinese Communists defeated the pro-West Kuomintang forces and took power in 1949, they also took charge of a country plagued with infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, and smallpox. In response, the new government set up one of the largest and most effective public healthcare systems. By around 1958, the focus of the health campaign came down to eradicating peststhat were carriers of disease and pestilence. The ‘four pests’ campaign, as it was known, homed down on the mosquito, the cause of malaria, rodents that spread plague and ate the corn, flies that carried cholera, and the sparrow that ate up China’s granaries.
It was a movement of unimaginable proportions, from the nursery schools to the factories, children and adults were mobilized through posters and lectures to go after the creatures. It was a textbook success story. With the vermin decimated, hygiene was restored, and malaria and small pox wiped out. Discover magazine reports 1 billion sparrows and 1.5 billion rats were killed, and 100 million kilograms of flies and 11 million kilograms of mosquitoes were annihilated. But what was not realized is that the sparrow while eating some grain, kept a watchful eye over the fields and held other vermin like the locust at bay. With the birds out of the way, the locusts swarms invaded the grain fields with abandon, creating an ecological disaster for China. Discover estimates that 20 to 30 million people may have perished from mass starvation in the 1958-62 period.
As we are learning ever so often, a disturbed Nature hits back. As forests are decimated, and temperatures rise, and the icecaps in the Arctic melt, the Oceans begin to rise and become warmer.
The effects are there everywhere: raging bushfires in Australia, locusts in Africa, and unbearable heat in the Indo-Gangetic plains. We can, of course, keep ignoring the signals at our own peril.
Delicate balance 20-30 million
People may have died of starvation in China between 1958-62 after a mass extermination of over a billion sparrows and countless other ‘pests’ led to an explosion in the numbers of locusts
Food security threatened
20 million people may see their food supplies threatened due to the locust swarm