Sitting in a tyre repair shop covered with a thatching of fresh grass, Thanwar Kolhi, 53, wanted to be updated on the heavy rains expected to hit Sindh. “I pray it won’t rain here,” he muttered.
Kolhi has been farming for 30 years. During the monsoons, he ploughs land in order to stock grains and raise animal feed. For the rest of the year, he herds sheep.
Over the past few years, he has started repairing tyres near his village of Jamhaar in Tharparkar district. Due to continuous droughts, farming did not pay enough to feed a family of nine and take care of his herd of 15 sheep.
This year his farm received two good spells of rain — in mid-July and early August. But, like many other residents of the Thar desert, he has not ploughed his fields because of the locust threat.
Last year, the first time the Thar desert had received adequate rainfall after more than five years of drought, he planted crops. “I spent PKR 35,000 (USD 210) on my land. At the end of the day the yield was less than my investment; about half the crops were devoured by locust swarms,” said Kolhi.
He had planted millet, beans, lentils and other crops. But when it was time to harvest them, the locust swarms arrived. “Normally, millet takes three rounds of reaping. The more we cut, the more it grows. But I had hardly finished the first round when the locusts came, clearing lush green crops and pastures. They even devoured leaves and straw [for animal feed].”
He has lost the opportunity to farm this year, but hopes that at least the grass will be spared from the locust swarms. Otherwise, he said, “Our animals will die of hunger.”
Jaiso Bheel, a resident of Chaho Rahumaan in the district of Islamkot, stood in his denuded farm. The locust swarms had already irreparably damaged his crops, especially millet, leaving behind millions of nymphs (baby locusts) in the sandy soil. To protect his crops from further damage, he started digging a three-foot-deep trench around his farm. He was only halfway done, but the nymphs had already started to mature into locusts.
There have been three spells of rain in and around his village. Most of the residents did not plough their lands. Bheel was one of the few who did. “I was aware of the situation, and had heard the government’s advice to avoid ploughing because of the locust threat. But I’m skilled only in farming. This land feeds not only us humans but also our livestock. We humans can beg; where would the animals go? These very animals come handy in droughts; they feed my family.”
The farm’s average annual yield is 1,000 maund (a maund is around 40 kilogrammes) of millet, beans and other cash crops. Not this year. “I’ve worked days and nights, shooing [locusts] away from crops. I’ve killed them in the millions. But the more we kill, the more they emerge from the soil. Now I don’t want to commit more sin [kill the locusts]. And I’m tired.”
Tharparkar district is home to 1.6 million people; 96 per cent live in villages and depend on farming and animal husbandry. Of the 1,014,000 hectares in the Thar, half is cultivable, but apart from some areas of Nagarparkar Tahseel, where land is cultivated by groundwater drawn through tubewells, the majority of the area depends on rain.
Climate change affects rainfall
Due to climate change, rainfall patterns have changed. Droughts have become more frequent; so have erratic and scattered rainfall. Since last year, locusts have worsened the situation manifold. People are now afraid to invest in their farms.
This year different areas of the Thar desert have already received two to four spells of rainfall. Ali Akbar Rahmoon — an environment expert and head of NGO the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE) — pointed out that for sowing, timeliness of rainfall is more important than total rainfall during the monsoon. If a farm gets as much as 1,100 millimetres of rain at the start of the monsoon but nothing after that, it is effectively a drought for the farmer. “The Thar desert requires three to four spells of rainfall intermittently; 300 to 350 mm rainfall would be sufficient to have good crops,” he said.
By desert standards, it has rained well this year. But the rainfall has also been good for a new generation of locusts. Bharu Mal Amrani — former coordinator of the Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment — said, “The locusts have been present since last year. They’ve laid eggs in the desert sand that are now hatching and a new generation is taking wing.”
The farmers say they have been advised by officials not to plant crops this year. But an official from the agriculture department — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — said the government has not barred farmers from sowing their crops. “We have developed a strategy to save crops from [locust] damage. The department of plant protection is doing spray work where locusts are present.”
“We’ve carried out spraying on 30,000 hectares of land in Tharparkar district,” he added. “Out of that, 500 hectares are cropping areas. We have also carried out aerial spray on 400 hectares in Islamkot tehsil (sub-district). All these areas are breeding grounds of locusts.”
Residents are unimpressed. “First, some lands [where locusts breed] are behind the sand dunes, where even [the agriculture department’s] off-road vehicles can’t reach. Second, their spray doesn’t kill locusts. If we insist on using stronger doses, it burns grass and crops,” complained Bheel.
The officer admitted that they have faced resistance from villagers who don’t want their farms sprayed. But, he said, there are others who understand the situation. He rejected villagers’ perception about the spray. “We are using two different doses of lambda-cyhalothrin [an insecticide] for cropped areas and grazing fields,” he explained.
This is one year when the rain has turned the desert green, but it has not brought hope. “This time the rain has brought locusts,” Kolhi said. “They are just 30 kilometres away. But for the locusts, which Thari [resident of Thar] wouldn’t want more rain?”