Pakistan Faces a New Threat: Locusts | OZY

Prime Minister Imran Khan is struggling to control food inflation that’s hurting the poor in the already impoverished nation.

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Prime Minister Imran Khan is struggling to control food inflation that's hurting the poor in the already impoverished nation.

When farmer Sabhi Khan looks out over his wheat fields, he gives a prayer of thanks that the swarms of locusts devastating his region of northwestern Pakistan have so far spared his crops.

But he fears there is worse to come, as the invasion threatens a crisis in the vital agriculture sector — just one of the litany of problems facing Pakistan and its under-pressure prime minister, Imran Khan.

“Farmers owe me money and they still haven’t paid because their crops were damaged,” says Khan, who also provides short-term loans to friends and family.

The India-Pakistan border, a few hundred miles from his farm, has been identified by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization as one of three areas globally with “threatening locust activity,” as the region faces its worst invasion in 20 years. There are fears the swarms will get worse in the summer as new eggs hatch.

The prospect of an agricultural crisis comes as the former cricketer’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is struggling to rein in surging inflation, the result of a self-inflicted wheat shortage that has led to queues for flour in cities from Islamabad to Karachi. 

Speculation and hoarding is happening for key commodities like wheat and sugar, but what’s worrisome is the inability of the government to control it.

Asad Sayeed, economist

Critics blame administrators in Punjab province, the country’s agricultural heartland, for failing to procure enough wheat. A ban on exports imposed in July was ineffective and smuggling shot up. Sugar prices followed, doubling in price to Rs64 ($0.41) a kilogram from a year ago as a result of shortages rooted in bad management.

The opposition alleges authorities did little to intervene. Inflation hit a nine-year high of 14.6 percent in January, according to the State Bank of Pakistan. The poor have been particularly hard hit, with rural inflation reaching double digits and the cost of tomatoes surging 157 percent from a year ago. 

PAKISTAN-OKARA-LOCUST-OUTBREAK

Pakistani farmers trying to avoid locusts swarming in Okara district in eastern Pakistan’s Punjab province. Locust attack on crops incurred heavy financial losses to farmers in some areas of the country.

Source Xinhua/Getty

The prime minister has been accused of turning a blind eye to the problem. After months of high prices, he addressed the topic in a post on Twitter on Sunday when he promised a probe. “The nation should rest assured that all those responsible will be held accountable and penalized,” he said. This week his government approved a subsidy of Rs10 billion ($65 million) to bring down the prices of wheat, sugar and rice.

The cost of food had been expected to rise as a result of the devaluation of the rupee and utility price increases introduced as part of a $6 billion IMF program approved last year. But the unexpected shock of the surge in the cost of wheat and sugar has hammered Pakistanis during a time of slow economic growth and job losses, fueling doubts over the government’s capacity to handle the crisis.

“The food shortages look like they are getting worse, not better,” says Matiullah Anwar, a plumber in Islamabad. 

Pakistan has ordered 300,000 tons of wheat, which is scheduled to arrive this week and is set to place a big sugar order. “Speculation and hoarding is happening for key commodities like wheat and sugar, but what is worrisome is the inability of the government to control it,” says Asad Sayeed, a Karachi-based economist. “There is this blind faith that stabilization will be taken care of by the market. That may be good in textbooks, but it is not happening in this context.” 

Inflation presents a serious challenge to Prime Minister Khan and has strained his fragile coalition government. He was forced to make an emergency trip to Lahore to quell discontent in his party after Punjab’s chief minister, Sardar Usman Buzdar, handpicked by Khan, was accused of botching the response to the wheat crisis. 

“This is deeply destabilizing. Pakistan’s domestic politics is in a state of crisis right now,” says Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst at Stanford University. “Khan seems unable to keep his team together.” 

That makes the looming locust swarms all the more daunting, experts say. “There is a very serious threat of invasion, not only from spring breeding areas of Iran, but also perhaps from the Horn of Africa,” says Keith Cressman, a senior locust forecaster at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Khan, the farmer, is not leaving anything to chance. He sent his 12-year-old son to Islamabad to enroll in an Islamic school that provides food and board. “If my fields are attacked by locusts, at least my son will be safe,” he says. “He won’t have to starve.”

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