ISLAMABAD - Pakistan has confirmed that arch-rival India is proposing a trilateral response in partnership with Iran to fight a crop-killing desert locust invasion, which threatens food security for millions of people across the region.
India's rare offer of cooperation comes amid escalating military tensions with Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region, worsening historically strained relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
"We have received a proposal from India," Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aisha Farooqui told VOA.
"We believe that a well-coordinated response is critical to deal with the challenge posed by desert locusts," she stressed. She would not say what Islamabad's possible response to the Indian proposal would be.
Farooqui, however, noted that Pakistan was "working closely" with regional countries, including India and global partners, particularly the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to address the looming locust threat.
The ongoing wider regional cooperation is happening under FAO's Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in Southwest Asia (SWAC), established in 1964 with Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan as its members.
Under the proposed trilateral response, New Delhi has reportedly suggested to Islamabad that both countries "coordinate locust control operations along the border and that India can facilitate supply of malathion, a pesticide, to Pakistan."
The Hindu newspaper quoted Indian officials as saying that Iran has welcomed the offer of pesticide to control desert locusts in the arid Iranian province of South Khorasan and the Sistan-Balochistan province that borders Pakistan.
Keith Cressman, FAO's senior locust forecasting officer, told VOA that India and Pakistan face an "imminent threat of several waves of spring-bred swarms" from southwest Pakistan and southern Iran during May and June.
"They are likely to be supplemented by additional swarms coming from East Africa in about early July. The locusts will appear along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border in areas that receive monsoon rains for summer breeding," Cressman warned.
Small swarms of desert locusts have already arrived in India from Pakistan and are moving east into the Rajasthan and Jodhpur regions, according to Indian media reports.
Analysts say the danger posed by the locust attack has apparently pushed New Delhi and Islamabad to set aside mutual differences to increase cooperation to tackle the challenge at a time when both countries are struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite mutual tensions, locust-related cooperation between India and Pakistan has been going on for decades to ensure food security in both countries.
Teams of locust experts from the two countries meet six times a year to discuss the evolving situation and share information about pest breeding patterns, control strategies and local forecasts. Three of the meetings are held in Pakistan and three in India under a decades-old mutual understanding.
The threat of a locust flare-up comes as summer crops of cotton, sugar cane and rice are being sown in Pakistan, while fruit and vegetables are ready to be harvested.
The latest FAO situation report warns that desert locust breeding is ongoing across 38% of land area in Pakistan, with the entire country under threat of an invasion if the pest is not contained.
Pakistan suffered its worst locust attack in nearly three decades in 2019, for which the country was ill-prepared at the time.
But officials and FAO experts say the country is "well-prepared" this year to fight the crop-eating locust. Special teams are already conducting "effective" locust-control spray operations in affected areas in Pakistan.
In January, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan declared a national emergency to protect crops from desert locust and help farmers save their assets.
China, meanwhile, is also assisting Pakistan in its locust efforts. The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad said in a statement that Beijing has already sent teams of agricultural experts to advise Pakistani farmers, donated 300 tons of malathion and 50 air-powered high-efficiency remote sprayers to combat the insects.
The FAO estimates losses to agriculture from locusts this year could be as high $2.2 billion for winter crops, including wheat and potatoes, and nearly $3 billion for summer crops.