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Qishloq Ovozi

The southern regions of Iran have been badly affected by swarms of desert locusts.

Along with the invisible invader aka the coronavirus, several countries in South and Central Asia are also under a vicious attack by swarms of locusts.

The locusts first spread across East Africa in 2018 and hordes of them also made their way to Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iraq before heading eastward into Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

And lately -- due to optimal weather conditions for massive breeding -- locusts in the north have brought their voracious appetites to parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan in what is being called the worst plague of the pests in two decades.

As they devour vegetation along their journey, crops in the regions that the locusts have infested are suffering immeasurably.

The damage done by the pests combined with reductions in food production and global trade due to the coronavirus pandemic have sparked concerns that there could be food shortages in some parts of the world this winter.

These are desert locusts, described by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as "one of the most voracious insects, which...can eat all type of vegetation that it comes across."

Also according to FAO, a swarm covering 1 square kilometer of land can contain “about 40 million locusts, which eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people.”

Additionally, once they grow wings they can "fly up to 150 kilometers per day and may travel nearly 2,000 kilometers in their lifetime to find a favorable environment for breeding."

They originated in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula after heavy rains caused by a series of cyclones in the Indian Ocean in 2018 and 2019 produced conditions for locusts to greatly multiply.

Early spring rains in Iran hatched the local population that was quickly augmented by more desert locusts blown in from Africa and the Arabic countries.

By February 2020, Iran was battling swarms of the ravenous insects.

Officials said locusts had invaded seven southern provinces -- Hormozgan, Sistan-Baluchistan, Bushehr, Fars, Khuzestan, South Khorasan, and Kerman.

Mohammad Reza Mir, a spokesman for the Iranian Agricultural Ministry’s Plant Protection Organization, said at the start of May that “the density of locusts in the swarms is so high that a 10-15 centimeter layer of dead locusts forms on the ground after spraying pesticides."

Mir said on May 15 that locusts had devoured fields and orchards over some 200,000 hectares in the seven southern provinces and that Iran’s military had offered to help battle the pests.

Pakistani National Emergency

Pakistan had already declared a national emergency at the start of February as locusts stripped fields and orchards as swarms from last summer’s breeding made their way through the Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

A June 1 report from Nikkei Asian Review said the locusts had “already devoured considerable quantities of crops in over 60 districts” in provinces throughout Pakistan.

The same report noted that locusts had crossed into India and were in northwestern Rajasthan, northern Punjab, western Gujarat, and central Madhya Pradesh.

Many agricultural specialists are predicting a second wave of locusts to start making their way from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula toward Iran, Pakistan, and India at the beginning of the summer.

Locusts have been destroying crops in eastern Turkmenistan and western Uzbekistan in recent weeks, although officials there have not commented on it very much.

Early spring rains in Iran made the locust invasion worse.
Early spring rains in Iran made the locust invasion worse.

Turkmen authorities have not mentioned the locusts at all, though RFERL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that locusts had spread over some 35,000 hectares of land in the Kerki district of Turkmenistan’s eastern Lebap Province, devastating crops.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported that Uzbekistan’s Emergency Situations Ministry announced on May 25 it was already taking measures to battle an invasion of locusts from Turkmenistan.

There were reports of swarms of locusts appearing in the Kashkadarya, Surhandarya, Namangan, and Ferghana provinces.

But the locusts in Central Asia do not appear to be the same desert locusts plaguing Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

Moroccan Locusts

On May 19, Uzbekistan’s Agriculture Ministry denied that the locusts eating crops in Uzbekistan had come from Turkmenistan, but in explaining where they did originate from, the ministry noted "there are more than 150 types of locusts in the country, 10 of which can cause serious damage to crops, pastures, and other plants."

The most common of these 10 types is the Moroccan locust, which is found throughout Central Asia and Afghanistan.

At a May 29 briefing, Almabek Mars, the chairman of the state inspection committee of Kazakhstan’s Agriculture Ministry, said that “according to projected data for 2020, swarms of locusts are expected to cover an area of 554 hectares,” naming three types: the Italian prus, the Asian, and the Moroccan, as being the invaders.

Locust Swarms Devour Swaths Of Pakistan's Crops
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WATCH: Locust Swarms Devour Swaths Of Pakistan's Crops

He confirmed that Moroccan locusts had already been found in 150,000 hectares of land in the Zhambyl Province, which borders Kyrgyzstan, and in Turkestan Province, which borders Uzbekistan, including the Syrhandarya Province that Uzbekistan’s Agriculture Ministry said locusts were present.

Mars said some $3.6 million was earmarked to battle locusts in Kazakhstan this year.

The FAO promised to provide technical support to Kyrgyzstan to combat the locusts, predicting that without such help some 120,000 hectares of crops and pastureland could fall victim to the insects

So far, Kyrgyz authorities have not reported any major problems with locusts, but the pests are reported in parts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that border Kyrgyzstan.

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, reported locusts have already devoured crops in southern Tajikistan’s Khatlon region, one of the country's main agricultural areas.

Farmers in the Khatlon region’s Vakhsh district say locusts have stripped their grapevines of their fruit and complain they have received little help from the state while the price of insecticide to fight the pests is prohibitively high.

The battle against the locust plague is something that none of these countries can afford to lose as their full harvests will be particularly needed this year amid the problems caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

Many of the governments in these countries told people weeks ago to grow as much food as they could at home to offset expected shortages at the end of the year and first quarter of 2021.

RFE/RL's Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Afghan services as well as Radio Mashaal and Radio Farda contributed to this report.
A suspension of work at any of the major oil fields or major copper mines would represent a loss of revenue the state can ill afford at the moment.

Kazakhstan is experiencing a double attack as the coronavirus spreads and world prices fall for oil -- one of the country's most important exports.

Already struggling to cope with massive revenue losses due to the collapse of international oil markets, the Kazakh government's bad economic situation is being exacerbated by an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at major oil fields and mines.

Bloomberg reported on May 27 that Chevron Corp, the main stakeholder in the Tenghiz oil-field project, announced it was sending home two-thirds of its workers at the site.

Tenghiz is Kazakhstan's biggest onshore oil field, with estimated reserves of some 25 billion barrels and total recoverable reserves at somewhere between 6 billion to 9 billion barrels.

The operations at Tenghiz account for about one-third of Kazakhstan's oil output.

Oil officials hope the major reduction in its workforce will stop the virus from spreading and keep the lucrative site from shutting down.

Tenghiz appears to be an epicenter of the coronavirus in Kazakhstan, with nearly 950 cases reported among workers at the site as of May 20. That was more than 10 percent of all the registered coronavirus cases in Kazakhstan on that day.

On May 25, the public-relations manager at TengizChevroil, Rzabek Artygaliev, said some 18,500 of the company's workers and contracting organizations had been evacuated from the fields.

"Infection spreads very quickly where there are a lot of people," Artygaliev explained. "Therefore, it was necessary to reduce the number of people at the field."

The TengizChevroil consortium -- Chevron Corp, ExxonMobil Kazakhstan, Russia's LUKoil, and Kazakhstan's state-owned KazMunaiGaz -- released a statement a week before saying that "production continues uninterrupted and we remain focused on maintaining safe and reliable operations."

Coal miners enter the shaft at the Kostenko mine in Qaraghandy.
Coal miners enter the shaft at the Kostenko mine in Qaraghandy.

Copper Closure?

Kazakhmys -- which is owned by Vladimir Kim, a close friend of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev -- is Kazakhstan's largest copper producer and one of the largest in the world.

The company works in the central Qaraghandy Province, where it also has coal mines and operates several power stations, including a hydropower and a solar power station, according to the company. It also employs 46,000 people.

Kazakhmys said it recorded its first coronavirus case at a mining site on May 6. How long production will be allowed to continue there is unclear, as mining sites in various countries have been hit really hard by COVID-19 outbreaks.

Kazakhstan's chief hygienist, Aizhan Yesmagambetova, spoke on May 20 about the outbreak at the Tenghiz site and other oil and mining areas around Kazakhstan. She said if the infection rates continued to grow, the government might have to order a halt to operations.

"The number of [coronavirus] cases at Tenghiz has grown to 935, in Shymkent at PetroKazakhstan there are 101 cases, and among contractors [for the site] 23 cases, and 69 cases among contact groups," Yesmagambetova said. "In Qaraghandy Province there are 34 cases at the Kazakhmys mine."

Added together that would be 1,162 cases at those three sites on the same day that Kazakhstan's Tengrinews.kz website also reported there were a total of 6,969 cases in Kazakhstan.

A week later, on May 27, Health Minister Yerlan Birtanov gave an online press briefing about the spread of the coronavirus in Kazakhstan and said there were at that time 1,063 cases at Tenghiz, 219 cases at PetroKazakhstan, and 350 at mining sites in Qaraghandy Province.

Birtanov added that there were 80 cases registered among workers at construction sites in Nur-Sultan and in Turkestan Province, where Shymkent is located, and about as many cases at military bases in the Zhambyl and Aqtobe provinces.

The Health Ministry reported earlier that day that there were 9,304 cases nationwide.

State health officials and management at these sites realize much of the problem stems from the onsite living areas at the oil and gas fields and at mining operations across the country.

The companies operating the oil fields and the mines in Qaraghandy have vowed to implement a series of measures to prevent the virus from spreading further, such as the creation of "pods," or teams that would live onsite in small groups that were sufficiently separated from each other to limit contact.

Kazakhmys said it was temporarily halting production work at its Nurkazgan mine except for repair and maintenance work "carried out by 100 people per shift," all of whom would be regularly tested.

PetroKazakhstan, a Canadian-based company, has also vowed to boost measures to prevent the spread of the virus but a post on the company's website from May 21 provided only rudimentary measures, such as using disinfectant or washing hands for 20 to 30 seconds, covering the mouth and nose when coughing, not touching the face, not spitting in public areas, etc.

Taking Another Hit

While government warnings about shutting down operations at sites where the spread of the coronavirus appears to be out of control are prudent, the authorities will be hard pressed to actually take such measures.

The Tenghiz oil field produced some 29.79 million tons of oil in 2019, a year when Kazakhstan's total production was 90.4 million tons.

And the Karachaganak gas-condensate field in West Kazakhstan Province that produced some 11.27 million tons last year just reported its first coronavirus case on May 26.

But authorities in West Kazakhstan Province, and in Atyrau Province, where the Tenghiz oil field is located, are easing the province-wide quarantine there as of June 1.

Kazakh authorities have known for weeks that 2020 would be a difficult year for the country. The announcement of the first cases of the coronavirus in Kazakhstan came about one week after the price of oil nosedived on global markets.

The price of oil might be low, but Kazakhstan has no choice but to keep pumping it out. The price of copper is slightly down on world markets, but Kazakhstan has no choice but to continue mining it.

A suspension of work at any of the major oil fields or major copper mines would represent an additional loss of revenue the state can ill afford at the moment.

At the same time, the Kazakh government cannot afford to have recurrent outbreaks at work sites that threaten to spread to local populations.

As of June 2, Kazakhstan had reported 11,571 coronavirus infections but just 44 deaths, a number that has been widely scrutinized by observers as vastly underreported.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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