Thari Mirwah, Pakistan – Azmatullah, a 45-year-old farmer in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh, clearly remembers the moment his worst fears came true.
A young girl, he says, one of the workers on his 40.5 hectares of land on the frontier with the Nara Desert in Thari Mirwah, about 400km north of Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi, came running into the farm’s main courtyard from an adjacent cotton field, screaming.
“‘Makar! Makar!’ she cried,” he says. “Locusts! Locusts!”
Azmatullah is among the thousands of farmers who cultivate more than 246,000 hectares of cotton, nearly 23 percent of Pakistan’s entire crop, in Sindh province, an arid region where most fields are fed by canal irrigation from the Indus River.
Cotton and cotton products are one of Pakistan’s main exports, accounting for $11.7bn of the country’s $24.7bn in exports last year, according to central bank data. The industry is also one of the country’s main employers, providing jobs for tens of thousands across the country, from farmers to spinners and weavers.
For the past month, authorities have been battling a swarm of desert locusts which has been threatening the country’s main cash crop, at a time when Pakistan is already going through a major economic crisis, with slowing growth, a skyrocketing exchange rate and rising inflation. The board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave its final approval last week to a $6bn loan facility for Pakistan, its 13th bailout since the late 1980s.
Any threat to the cotton crop, analysts say, could be catastrophic, especially for the country’s already stagnant exports.
“We called a few of the farmers and lit fires to raise smoke and drive them away,” says Azmatullah, as he walks through his fields to survey the damage.
“The crops right now are not so strong that they can withstand the attack,” he says, pointing to damage to the stems and leaves of some of his crops from the small group of locusts that hit the fields.
“If the locusts come in large numbers, then it is unlikely that any of the crop will survive. The locusts will not rise until they have completely eaten the crop.
“Then they will attack others’ fields.”
‘Like a war’
Deep in the Nara desert, about 25km away, Fakhar Zaman is a man on a mission.
The entomologist is in charge of a crew of eight officials from Pakistan’s federal food security ministry that is conducting eradication and control operations against the locusts in this area, investigating reports of locust sightings and coordinating the spraying of powerful pesticides to control the swarm.
“All of this,” he says, gesturing to a large number of locusts dying from an aerial spray minutes earlier, “is like a war for us.”
“The border we are protecting is the crop area. And we must fight this war, it is for our country.”
Around him, poisoned locusts appear to be dazed, unable to fly much higher than a few feet. The contrast to before the spraying of the pesticides is stark: just minutes earlier, the trees and shrubs of this desert were full of the voracious insects.
Now, the trees appear to be half their size, as those locusts that were not killed by the spray attempt to escape its effects.
“It is an insect weighing two grams, and in 24 hours, it can eat food that is equal to its body weight,” Zaman says, picking up a bright yellow locust. “So you can imagine just how dangerous it is. If it sits on the crops, God forbid, then it will eat all of [them].”
Pakistan has suffered previous major locust invasions in 1993 and 1997, but nothing on this scale has been seen since then, farmers and government officials told Al Jazeera. The current invasion has its roots in Yemen, where due to the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, control activities could not be carried out in time.
“Because there is a war going on there [in Yemen], it wasn’t treated there,” says Tariq Khan, technical director of the food security ministry’s crop protection department.
The swarm grew in number, passing through Saudi Arabia and Iran, before entering Pakistan through its western border, eating crops in Balochistan and then in Sindh.
So far, more than 8,000 hectares of land have been treated with pesticides to battle the locusts in Pakistan, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In Iran, authorities have treated more than 247,000 hectares, FAO data shows, and Pakistan is working with both Iranian and Indian authorities to control the pests’ spread, Khan said.
Officials say the locusts have not yet bred, but that if adequate rainfall was to occur in the burgeoning monsoon season, due to begin this month, they could lay eggs and multiply in number, forming a huge swarm that would then turn towards cultivated areas in search of food.
“There is risk of a significant spread and full-on swarm [forming], with relatively serious impact on agriculture, if there are early monsoon rains both in Sindh and Punjab [provinces],” the FAO said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera.
The FAO says it is working with Pakistani authorities, as well as regional governments in Iran, India and Afghanistan to control the spread of the insects.
Smallholder farmers, large debts
The threat to Pakistan’s cotton sector is real, and any attack by locusts on Sindh’s crops could exacerbate difficulties the industry has been facing with dwindling yields and high input prices, analysts and industry leaders say.
Pakistan is the fourth-largest producer of cotton in the world, and its third-largest consumer, according to government data. In the financial year ending in 2018, Pakistan produced 7.55 percent of the entire world’s cotton, slotting in behind India, China and the US, according to the Pakistan Central Cotton Committee’s annual report.
“It could cause huge damage for the country’s cotton area,” says Usman Lutfi, deputy general manager of cotton at Tata Pakistan, a major textile company. “Sindh’s cotton is much better than Punjab cotton in all respects – it has better strength, colour and longer staple.”
Cotton with a longer ‘staple length’ results in higher-quality cotton that is stronger and softer.
Lutfi says a crop failure in Sindh would add to a three-year stretch of lower than expected cotton production in Punjab province, the country’s main agricultural area, and force the country to increase imports of cotton crops to feed its industries.
Last year, Pakistan imported more than 2.9 million bales of raw cotton, mainly from the US and India, compared to 11.9 million bales in domestic production, according to government data.
Pakistan’s currency, however, has depreciated more than 30 percent in the last year, now trading at roughly 156 rupees to the US dollar, causing concerns that imports will be too expensive to make up the gap.
“When we make deals with the exchange rate at 130 rupees, and then it goes to 160 rupees, we face a huge loss,” says Lutfi.
More than industrialists, however, the main brunt of any attack on the crops would be felt by small-time farmers, such as Azmatullah in Thari Mirwah.
“Everything in our life is dependent on the crops. We don’t have any other business or capital. Everything depends on the crops ... The locusts will leave only destruction. They will destroy our lives,” he says, pointing out that he makes only roughly 10,000 Pakistani rupees ($63) in profit for each acre of land under cultivation.
Other smallholder farmers echoed that sentiment, adding that they take loans from local money lenders each year to sow their crops and treat them with fertiliser.
Khan Muhammad, 38, farms his 10 hectares of land in the village of Magan Khan, about 20km south of Azmatullah’s land, and spotted locusts on his crops earlier this month. He has taken on more than a million rupees ($6,325) in debt this year to sow his seeds.
“Based on our everyday needs, we don’t have enough money to pay for our expenses and also sow the crop every year, so that is why we take on debt, and farm on that debt.”
His story is hardly unique, with most farmers Al Jazeera interviewed saying they take on debts every year in order to sow their crops.
Another farmer, Khawand Dino, 50, himself more than $6,000 in debt this year, said he would lose everything if the locusts were to return.
“This crop is all that we have, I have no other means of income,” he says. “If it is finished, then we are at Allah’s mercy. We will starve without it, we will be forced to beg on the street.”
Later, he adds, giving it a few moments thought: “Even if we become beggars, no-one will give us any money, because no-one will have anything. If everyone’s crops are destroyed, where will they find charity from?”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim