Locust invasions: Present and future threats to food security and ecosystems
The recent locust attacks have ravaged Asian and African regions, with the COVID-19 pandemic worsening this ongoing crisis. The recent exponential escalation and roots exist in climate change, with unseasonal rainfall starting back in 2018. To address present and future threats, we must consider sustainability measures such as reviving biodiversity and strengthening our forest ecosystems, instead of resorting to short-term fixes.
The plight of climate change continues and strikes in unexpected ways, crippling our unprepared systems. The recent locust attacks in Asia and which are still being addressed in parts of the African continent are brutal examples of how a small desert insect can wreak havoc on our food security. As such, there have been various solutions to address this problem, which do help address the problem in a reactive manner, while some threaten our ecosystems.
This widespread locust infestation started back in 2018 and quite far away from Pakistan. In 2018 Arabian Peninsula was hit by two major cyclones, namely Mekunu and Luban which lead to an unusual rainfall in Oman, Somalia and Yemen. This led to humid and favorable conditions which lead to breeding grounds for at least nine months for locusts which was not detected or controlled as a result for three generations which then started to spread from these regions. These unusual cyclone events were due to climate change, and the locusts arrived Iran, Saudi Arabis and Yemen which even led to larger numbers of locusts. From June to December 2019 the movement to Pakistan happened and this was also due to climate change triggered unseasonal rainfalls due to Cyclone Vayu in June, Hikaa in September and Kiyarr in November. The early rains before monsoon happened in early June brought in just the right conditions for the locusts to increase in size while later rains also kept these desert insects growing and further invading our ecosystems.
In 2020, the locust and related impacts worsened, and with the onset of COVID-19 Northern Pakistan was severely affected and one effective means to treat this was by using locusts as chicken feed. Another solution that was considered, was to bring in 100,000 ducks from China as they feed three times more than our chickens. However, there are potentially great dangers in introducing new species into our ecosystems, as typically these may lead to unintended impacts on our ecosystems. Instead of resorting to such quick fix solutions we must strengthen and revive our biodiversity to contend with locusts, as with increase in indigenous biodiversity the invading locust swarms would be countered by birds, and indigenous predators.
Bringing in exotic species such as ducks from China will only add risk to our existing and weakened ecosystems where such species are already wreaking havoc, hence these must not be allowed in our ecosystems to address the locust issue. Rather, we must strengthen our ecosystems and it all starts with reviving our forests and greenery.
The case of Paper Mulberry in Islamabad and its deadly pollen levels stand out as a clear-cut example in terms of avoiding exotic species in local ecosystems. As such, to provide a defense against locust invasion, we need to resort to indigenous indigenous trees to build our forests must be used in all plantation campaigns. The revival of our existing ecosystems and fauna biodiversity requires trees and healthy forest regions as a basis, and to strengthen our defenses these should be close to farming and crops, hence having predator species which can provide natural protection against locusts.
Unrest ensues as exotic or foreign species are bought into our forest ecosystems. In Pakistan, declining native birds such as doves, parrots, pigeons and magpies is due to replacement of natural vegetation with exotics. Due to an increase in filth and waste, the number of scavenging birds including the myna, brahminy myna, bank myna, pied myna, Indian kites and crows have increased considerably, whereas seed eating birds are becoming increasingly rare. Wildlife figures show an approximate 70% decline in migratory bird populations in Punjab.
Paper mulberry and acacia shrub plantations in Islamabad and Baluchistan deserts respectively during 1960s speaks volumes of the lack of attention to this issue. Both are invasive aliens, the worst of the exotic trees for any environment. They damaged the local flora and fauna and continue to threaten human health. Birds other than crows in Islamabad are a rarity, although the area is a known sanctuary for them. Crows feed on and propagate paper mulberry fruit.
Local vegetation was successfully invaded by this tree, which later became a serious public health threat. Thousands of people suffer heavily when the tree pollinates during spring. There are reported deaths due to allergies and asthma, while there is no other way to avoid these except to uproot the trees. Despite hectic efforts by the CDA at exterminating the tree, it did not vanish due to its invasive nature. It seems that the CDA too has given up the issue.
Eucalyptus, another exotic, unfortunately has a 100% survival rate in this country. The forest department chose it because it did not require post-plantation care, and which was good for waterlogged areas. The tree guzzles more water and invades the local vegetation and has nothing to offer to birds, insects, or animals. There are over one hundred million eucalyptus trees, spread all over the country.
Natural defense from disasters
Forests provide natural dampening mechanisms against seismic waves by diminishing the effects of topsoil erosion thus minimizing landslides. In contrast is a desert, where sand dunes shift and take new shapes in hours with the wind. “Tightening” of the top layer by trees provides a considerable defense against uneven movement of tectonic plates. Trees also act as flexible and additional structures that absorb seismic waves. Forests strengthen the capacity of the surface layer to absorb the full impact of an earthquake and by this virtue, prevent landslides and mudslides, as the ground is firmly attached to hundred of thousands of roots, forming a cohesive network in keeping the soil at one place.
Unnatural damming of rivers in the Northern Regions has also been a serious problem, where entire mountain regions are collapsing into them. Artificial dams hinder the normal flow, creates artificial reservoirs endangering private property in the areas because of rising water level in the days to come. The creation of an artificial lake in river Swat between Behrain and Kalam because of a massive mudslide that covers greater part of the riverbed, at that particular place when the region was affected by floods. A collapse of a mountainside near the town of Hattian Bala blocked two major streams creating huge lakes that endanger up to 12,000 people. Such landslides are not only due to massive deforestation of the region but are also attributed to increased melting rate of glaciers in Northern areas due to regional deforestation as well as global warming.
Not only do trees save our mountains and lands from collapse but also help tremendously in fighting against global warming and climate change, which the biggest challenge faced by the entire humanity’s survival. Burning of fossil fuels gives rise to air pollution leads the way in causing recent and alarming trends in global warming. This dangerous and mostly unchecked human activity results in the release of so-called “greenhouse gases” which have the property of absorbing and trapping outgoing solar radiation in the atmosphere. As the radiation is trapped, this ultimately increases the temperature of the planet and results in abnormal shifts in weather which leads to greater intensity and impact of natural disasters.
The second leading cause that aggravates these dangerous effects is the massive deforestation that is occurring across the planet. To convert sunlight into food, photosynthesis as a mechanism is used within plants and trees which involves in absorbing carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Oxygen is also released in the process and hence the air is purified as a result. Therefore, forests act as massive carbon dioxide sinks, while not only starting the very food chain that sustains all life forms, but also defending us against the harmful effects of air pollution and global warming as a result. Droughts and increased flooding, which occur on a much more prolonged and intense levels in Pakistan are due to such changes as well and consistently damage our economy as a result.
In fact, destruction of forests has been the key element in the increased devastation caused by recent natural calamities. The Indian Ocean tsunami which lashed with all its fury on the coastlines of countries could have been soothed by mangrove forests, which were cut down due to short term economic benefits like shrimp farming and fostering the tourist industry. Mangrove forests not just enrich the local communities of all living beings with nutrition and life – they are natural buffers which efficiently dissipate the energetic impact of high-speed winds and large-scale waves which characterize inclement coastal conditions ranging from cyclones to tsunamis. Hurricane Katrina unleashed itself on New Orleans as wetlands, which provide cover against storm surges were eliminated in favor of developing oil rigs, highways and shopping malls.
To mitigate the impact such disasters in the future, including locust invasions, we should, therefore put an end to deforestation, as the costs far outweigh short term gains. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries must be practiced as sustainable industries and not a means to plunder and render extinct those that support our life on the planet.
If such strategies are not in place, then the crippling blows to economy due to natural disasters renders any steps of progress completely ineffectual. In order to comprehensively tackle this, a disaster management plan must be developed. In this regard, the key to any well-designed disaster risk management strategy is not only taking short-term steps in order to ensure recovery, but long-term step mitigation strategies need to be in place as well. This is necessary so as to prevent greater losses from occurring. Tree plantation and care for the environment is one of these emerging strategies as we are scientifically understanding the importance of such natural protection mechanisms which also means lesser costs involved, when a natural disaster strike. Efforts to curb global warming center on reining in emissions from burning fossil fuels in power plants, factories and cars in industrial nations, which we should take a part in. However, planting of trees is much more achievable targets for developing nations due to the low economic cost and skill involved.
Active afforestation drives should be also augmented with education of those involved in the activity. This should center on the reasons and the protection trees and greenery provide against such calamities. A disaster resilient nation that is ready to tackle any obstacle in its path to prosperity and well-being cannot be rendered a reality without long term measures. There are no short cuts to long term sustainable development for all, and defense against locust invasions and such threats to our food security are to be adapted to by strengthening our ecosystems starting now.
Climate change threatens our very existence. The threat of more intense natural disasters looms large amid such dangerous weather patterns. This recent locust invasion as well as ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and continuous spells of droughts, floods and extreme weather events require us to act now to plant indigenous species for the support and protection trees provide against such disasters.
Subh-e-Nau’s Tree Plantation Campaigns
With more than 200,000 indigenous trees planted over the past two decades, Subh-e-Nau (SN) wants the involvement of plantation at a grass roots level. The simple principle behind this approach is to recognize that a single tree planted even in relative isolation helps our ecosystem, if it is taken care of. This approach is the need of the hour, complemented with mini forests towards raising the dismal state of green cover which can help strengthen our ecosystems against locus attacks.
Bringing in exotic species, not only damages ecosystems, but also results in loss of national revenue. Plantation is the need of the hour and there could even be a National Day for Plantation in the spring season, towards meeting this key environmental gap. Back in 2005, SN had planted a Kachnar tree for the very first time in the history of the country at the Prime Minister House. More importantly, following this event, a policy was initiated and announced by the Forest Department, which exclusively aimed at plantation of indigenous trees across the country.
Towards involving our citizens on a large scale, Subh-e-Nau got August 18 as the National Plantation Day approved back in the days of the Zardari government. This effort itself took a decade of work and its potential to green Pakistan is tremendous indeed.
Mass plantation campaigns are the best things that could happen to a nation but let us also notlose sight of failed experiments in the form of imported exotic species, namely, Paper Mulberry in Islamabad and Conocarpus in Karachi. Subh-e-Nau (SN), which has been involved in instituting the National Plantation Day on the 18th of August, has been promoting the use and revival of local species at various levels.
Notable Indigenous Trees
Sukh Chain, meaning peace and pleasure is native to entire sub-continent. Planted as ornamental trees on roadsides or parks, it gives thick shade, attracts birds and bees and is a potential source for biodiesel.
Kachnar is a beautiful flowering tree of our ecosystem. Available in pink, red, purple and white colors, it adds beauty to the scene. Inviting a variety of birds, its buds are a popular vegetable.
Chanar, a high-altitude plant changes its color with weather change. Tall and handsome, the canopy of this timber tree provides good shade. It is worth seeing in fall when its leaves turn red and then yellow to orange before falling down.
Sheesham or Tahli is the most popular tree in Pakistan and mainly liked for its valuable timber. Its durable wood is the first choice for furniture. Favourite of birds for its flowers, the plant is in danger due to widespread disease.
Phulah is a member of the kiker family. It is timber tree and popular for its hard and durable wood. A medium size tree normally grows 40 to 45 feet high. Its hard wood traditionally used for the sugar cane crushing and Persian wheels etc.
What can we all do to undo the harmful effects of deforestation?
The 210 million people in Pakistan, if divided by 5 will make up 42 million families. If every family takes the initiative of planting just one tree the country can get richer by 42 million trees and this can be achieved easily in a single National Plantation Day.
Insist on indigenous trees and plants for your home, flat, or wherever you live. Not only are they well adapted and pose no health risk to you, but the financial costs are quite small compared to the more expensive exotics.
Instill respect for plants and trees for children. Explain their importance and how causing damage or negligence is a rash act which will ultimately hurt everyone in the process. A precautionary approach towards trees and plants is beneficial to all. By first considering all reasons for your action, a loss or damage to any tree or plants has deep environmental consequences. In other words, you are harming the first step of your own food supply, so do find alternatives first.
Each family should “adopt a tree” and make sure that the trees in their neighborhood are not cut.
Form communities in your neighborhood that watch out against cutting down of trees and plants. This includes parks as well. Take action against any such encroaching agency by contacting local authorities. They will listen to you if you are persistent!
Schools, colleges, universities, associations, public institutions, banks, industries, commercial organizations and even religious bodies should come forward in not only generating awareness but also in helping the plantation of the trees.
Encourage green activities like planting a tree on any occasion. On your next birthday or anniversary plant a tree as a part of your celebration. The tree you plant this will remind you of these precious moments.
Writer: Dr. Farrukh Chishtie
Gardening — Converting waste to gold
The adage ‘Waste not, want not’ is spot on the mark when it comes to organic gardening particularly in small spaces where the more you feed the soil, the larger and healthier the crops you will harvest. One of the simplest methods of improving, and then maintaining, growing conditions is by making and using as much good quality compost as possible. (Part-VI).
Myths and legends about the difficulty of making compost at home abound and, if you take them literally, you will never pluck up the courage to begin a natural process, which is only as problematic as you want it to be! Basically, all you are doing is assisting natural, organic material to decompose faster than it would otherwise do so using the process we all know as ‘composting’.
All you need is a suitable location to make your compost and this can be in the form of a purpose built ‘bin’, a mesh cage, a plastic garbage bin with lots of drainage holes in the base or a simple pit if you have the space although. Frankly speaking, I do not recommend the latter as it could provide the perfect habitat for rodents, poisonous insects and snakes.
A compost bin can be made out of hammering pieces of tin sheet on to wooden supports, the depth and width depending on how much suitable material you think you have available to compost. Putting a cover of some kind on the top will prevent scavengers such as crows and cats becoming a nuisance. The base must have ample facility for drainage with any runoff water being directly soaked up in the ground or channeled in to the garden unless you are able to save it in some kind of container to use as potent liquid manure.
Constructing compost bins out of strong mesh is another option but can be unsightly plus attract nasty insects and, as a properly working compost bin needs to build up enough natural heat from the decomposition process then air penetrating the mass through the mesh could very well lower the internal temperature. This reduces its efficiency and leads to bad smells, which can otherwise be avoided.
Small amounts of compost are efficiently made in a plastic garbage bin of a decent size as long as it has drainage holes for excess liquid of course. Just tossing organic waste into an open heap and hoping for miracles to happen is not a good idea at all.
Suitable composting ingredients include: Household fruit and vegetable waste, grass cuttings, plant debris as long as it is disease and insect free, egg shells, weeds before they have formed seed heads, leaves, wood shavings, sawdust, shredded paper/cardboard, shredded old clothes and woolens etc as long as they are 100% natural fiber, tea and coffee grounds etc. Avoid adding any meat/chicken products, oil/grease, plastics, metal, glass or items containing chemicals/preservatives/salt, as these will hinder the natural composting process, attract vermin and result in bad smells plus some of these items will not rot down and are hazardous to handle.
Materials for composting decompose more rapidly if they are cut in to small pieces or shredded. Unfortunately, specially designed compost shredders are not yet available here so it is necessary to chop up the ingredients by hand or to be prepared to give your compost lots of time to rot down if the ingredients are large. Keeping the compost moist helps the process along but if it is waterlogged it will get very messy and smelly indeed. Stirring up the mixture once in a while, bringing the bottom layer to the top and vice versa is often recommended but not necessary if, again, you are prepared to wait a little longer.
Top quality compost can be ready in as little as three months in our climate if the ingredients are shredded or, for those not able or unwilling to do this then a wait of a year is quite normal. Personally, I have neither the time nor the patience to chop up the huge volume of organic waste from my garden, so I simply throw it all in the bin and let nature take its course. Actually, I have two large compost bins on the go at the same time so to speak. One is being filled, almost a year long process, whilst the other, left over from the previous year and topped with a light covering of soil, is utilized to grow courgettes, squash or pumpkins on for another season before being opened up and spread. The plants enjoy the heavy feeding and produce well and the compost gets that little more time to rot down to excellent consistency. I sow the seeds through holes in a cardboard mulch spread over the compost bin as this mulch keeps down weeds plus retains moisture whilst keeping the plant roots cool.
A completely different form of household composting is ‘Vermiculture’ in which you employ worms to make ‘casings’ which are the best compost known.
The industrious little creatures, preferably Eisenia fetida or Lumbricus rubelles both of which are red worms, eat their own weight in wet organic matter every twenty-four hours and the worm casings they produce are the most nutrient packed compost in existence. All they need is a comfortable, aerated home and bedding of shredded newspaper along with wet, organic kitchen waste on a regular basis for them to start working overtime. Their home, a box of some kind with wooden ones being the best but plastic ones absolutely fine and this needs to be located away from any bright light, either natural sunshine or electric lights. Underneath the kitchen sink is an obvious place to keep your wormery and, as long as you avoid feeding them meat products or anything containing chemicals then there should be no smell and no fuss.
Worm casings are now produced on a commercial basis and, an interesting point, some international fast food joints are experimenting with Vermiculture as a way of profiting from the incredible volume of waste their kitchens and customers produce. Local councils in some overseas countries are also experimenting with Vermiculture and looking into the feasibility of setting up large scale projects to take the place of landfill sites when possible.
Organic compost and worm casings can both be used as prime mulching material. Mulch is something, which is spread on the soil surface, in between and around but not touching plants and works to feed the soil over a period. It is actually slowly taken down into the soil by earthworms and other insects, and it retains ground moisture thus reducing the need to water plus keeps the roots of plants cool during hot weather.
Mulch can be spread anywhere from six inches or so in depths down to a mere surface covering only if surrounding plants are very small. As with manure, mulch should not touch the stems of plants as it may damage them if it heats up in decomposing.
Other useful mulching materials include: tea leaves and coffee grounds, shredded paper, cardboard, hedge and grass clippings, leaves, fruit and vegetable peelings, Hessian sacks, old wool carpets, old pure cotton towels, bed sheets and clothes, weeds before they run to seed and basically anything organic which would be at home in the compost bin.
Mulching can also be done using old, well-rotted, organic manure/compost of course.
Writer: Zahrah Nasir
Rehabilitation and recovery for graceful living
Mrs. Razala Bibi, has rehabilitated to live independently by overcoming the challenges posed by her spinal cord injury condition. In fact, she is now able to walk and conduct.
Chronic conditions such as Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), are a massive test for all concerned and involved. Since 2005, the Subh-e-Nau (SN) program has been effectively addressing major disabilities towards providing support and care both to patients and their respective families.
SCI arose in high numbers in 2005 after the Northern Kashmir earthquake, and the SN Disability program initiated to contend with such disability demands. Initially services were provided in Islamabad and Rawalpindi and then these were expanded out to Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir in 2006. Despite the dangerous and formidable geographical conditions, at-door services are provided, while striving towards further improvement and sustained support to the disabled.
Mrs. Razala Bibi had a SCI injury about two years back with the cause being involved in a tragic road traffic accident which disabled her. She was debilitated to the point of not being able to walk or conduct any productive work due to the challenges faced. Her husband, who is a driver, was unable to support her financially for medical and rehabilitation services, so he reached out to SN Disability program which provide both of these services without any financial cost.
With the help SN’s efforts and her own will, she is with the grace of Allah, presently able to walk and recovering from this rather challenging disability. She is living with her family in Muzaffarabad, and her SCI was first treated at the Combined Medical Hospital (CMH), Muzaffarabad.
SN supported her for her spinal fixation surgery and is providing physiotherapy home basis at a continuing basis. SN also helped to reactivate fine motor activities and taught him to conduct self-catheterization.
The SN disability program is providing Mrs. Razala Bibi the appropriate medical and rehabilitation services and aims to expand its service delivery to help on other challenges she and her family are presently facing. The program has been active in the post-earthquake Muzaffarabad region since 2006, where it continues to provide care which is leading to both better delivery of care towards management and achievement of graceful, independent living.
Writer: Dr. Farrukh Chishtie