Ch 3. Soil surveying in East Pakistan 1961−1971
In at the deep end again
At the end of Chapter 2, I stated that FAO had recruited me for a soil survey in the Amazon Basin. Having hooked me, FAO changed my destination to East Pakistan. I recall being very disappointed at this switch – a sentiment strongly reinforced as I flew into the Province in September 1961 when all I could see below was water and wondered what I had let myself in for (Figure 3.1): mud, mud, inglorious mud? I could not have been more mistaken. The Amazon survey never took off as originally planned; and in East Pakistan, we eventually found a great diversity and complexity of soils, and identified wholly new soil-forming processes. It was an exciting place to be in the 1960s. Again, I could not have been more fortunate.
Figure 3.1. “Where am I going to carry out my soil survey?”
It didn’t start well, however. I was at the East Pakistan end of an all-Pakistan project whose objective was to set up reconnaissance soil survey organisations in each wing of the country. Negotiations with central government took more than a year to complete before we could start to recruit and then train national staff. Several times, FAO HQ threatened to pull us out. It was almost two years before we could start field operations.
Given my ignorance of the new environment in which I had come to work, it was fortunate that project operations did not begin immediately. That allowed me to travel around the province to get ahead of my intended trainees. An FAO agricultural team was still working on the Ganges-Kobadak Irrigation Project in the west of the Province, so I took the opportunity of paying several visits to learn more about the soils and agriculture. I well recall my first visit in October 1961. Farmers had cut the newly-built flood embankment alongside the Ganges river in over 40 places, believing that the embankment would prevent fertile floodwater from benefitting their fields; (the embankment had, of course, been built without local consultation, as was the practice in those days). So I had to take what seemed to be an aluminium bathtub for my journey from the end of the road at Kushtia to the project HQ at Bheramara several miles upstream, a nerve-wracking experience on the fast-flowing, swirling Ganges, still in flood-flow in October.
The Province’s road network was poorly developed at that time. Travel to the south was by the ancient ‘Rocket’ paddle-steamer, a most enjoyable and relaxing way to travel. Travel to the North-west was by train, using a large ferry boat to cross the mighty Brahmaputra river between trains on each side; passengers had to walk across extensive areas of newly-deposited sand between the boat and trains on each side in the dry season, with baggage being head-loaded by porters. On my first trip up North, having crossed the Brahmaputra, I was highly embarrassed by my servant Andrew asking an older Bengali man to leave the spacious first class train compartment for the sahib (me), which the judge (for so he was) did – 15 years after British rule in India had ended!
On my arrival in Dhaka (then Dacca), I had found that my former next-door-neighbour in Kumasi was in East Pakistan, leading a Canadian team carrying out a soil and land use survey of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-east of the Province. I paid them several visits over the next year, making sufficient traverses across the region with them – they had a helicopter for making quick access to traverses across the steep hill ranges and a speedboat for fast-planing up and down Kaptai Lake – so that I could later distil their multi-volume report and maps into our District report format without our having to survey the region ourselves.
The Water Board also had soil and agriculture survey parties, trained by earlier members of the FAO Ganges-Kobadak project team, now working in proposed irrigation project areas in other parts of the Province. Visiting them gave me the opportunity to gain a growing knowledge of important differences in the Province’s geomorphology, soils and agriculture. On one of these first visits, to an area near the foot of the Shillong Plateau (in India) and just before the main (aman) rice crop harvest in November 1961, I recall arriving in a small town in the late afternoon and my Water Board companion being unable to buy more than a single egg in the market for our intended evening meal; (I forget now how we survived). I witnessed poverty and malnutrition that I had never seen in the Gold Coast/Ghana.
In fact, I recall feeling, for the first few months in East Pakistan, as though I was falling without a parachute. The social environment was so different from that in Ghana where, especially in the south, the people were very outgoing and friendly, and women played an important role in society: indeed, ‘mammies’ ran market operations, and banks and trading companies willingly advanced them many thousands of pounds to operate their businesses. Conditions were quite different in East Pakistan. Poverty was manifestly more prevalent, and women were concealed. It took me time to adjust my sensors and gradually to appreciate the customs and tickle-points of my new colleagues and society.
Eventually, the project got under way. In East Pakistan, I recruited 20 novice soil surveyors. All but one had MSc degrees in soil science (the other an M.A. in Agriculture), but none had ever seen a soil, and only one had previously seen a topographical map: (not their fault, the Defence Dept had classified all maps ‘restricted’ after Partition in 1947). The project therefore started with an extensive training programme. There were initial practical difficulties with this: the recruits had joined for the status of becoming central government officers (superior to Provincial status, thereby enhancing their future marriage prospects); and their prime concern was about the size of their desks, the equipment on them and the number of peons to service them. There was some reluctance to undertake practical training in the field. I still recall the magical moment – perhaps a common experience with teachers? – when, two months into the training programme, I realised that I had them with me and not against me: I could still go back to the spot on the road where one morning I saw the new look in their eyes. But I still dug or augered every inspection hole during that first year.
In the winter of 1963-64, the training programme gradually merged into the reconnaissance soil survey of Dacca District. Even near the capital, road communications at that time were still poor. Much of the District had to be surveyed from boats: a hired launch to live on; fibreglass dinghies with outboard motors for access to field traverse start and end points (sometimes a daunting experience on rivers as big as the Ganges, and later on rivers in the Meghna estuary and the tidal delta). I well remember my first view of the confluence of the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers: a high career point for a geographer!
Figure 3.2. Floating field base, Meghna river, 1963
Reminiscences of a career in Geography
During 1964-65, three other FAO staff members joined me, so that henceforth we were able to operate three District surveys each year. My role then changed to visiting each of the field parties several times each field season (December-May), maintaining soil correlation, and later assisting with report preparation and writing. I should add that we were able to use excellent airphotos on 1: 30,000 scale, quite different from the virtually unusable RAF post-war airphotos in the Gold Coast taken in the hazy harmattan season (and apparently sometimes developed in diesel oil). Our project headquarters was at Lahore in West Pakistan which I visited for project meetings at two-month intervals throughout the project, sometimes enjoying magnificent views of the Himalayas as the Constellation aircraft flapped its long wings across northern India. From 1968, I became Project Commissioner responsible for the surveys in both wings, but I continued to live in Dacca. I confess that I never developed an interest in arid soils.
My experience in Pakistan was broadened by field trips while attending international soil congress meetings: in Australia and New Zealand in 1964 (supplemented by private visits to Hawaii and California on my way to Britain on home leave); in southern Spain and Portugal in 1966; and in Russia from Moscow to the Crimea preceding the meeting in Bucharest, Roumania, in 1968.
This was an exciting time to be soil surveying, especially in the tropics. One was constantly moving into terra incognita, setting up and testing hypotheses attempting to explain one’s findings, and recording one’s information on maps and eventually in reports. Much of what we found was new to soil science. We found that East Pakistan’s floodplains were mainly flooded by ponded rainwater, not by silty river water. That had important implications both for soil formation and for soil fertility. The alluvium was above water for sufficiently long in the dry season for rapid soil development to take place, and seasonal flooding with rainwater rapidly leached topsoils. Therefore, instead of the boring raw alluvium that I had expected to find on my arrival, we found a great diversity and complexity of developed soils. Inter alia, we found subsoil soil coatings in seasonally-flooded soils that had not previously been reported; and we identified a wholly new soil-forming process (ferrolysis) which my colleague Robert Brinkman worked out later on a PhD thesis study at Wageningen. It was both challenging and rewarding, too, to be on the front line of an international network that was then developing successive iterations of what eventually became the FAO/Unesco Soil Map of the World and the USDA Seventh Approximation (later Soil Taxonomy).
Interesting and important as were our scientific findings, our surveys always had a practical objective: to provide the basis for increased agricultural production, farmers’ incomes and food security. I spent much time thinking of and developing ways to provide our new information in ways that could be understood and used by government planners, extension workers and students. That, too, was a challenging task, and one that I was fortunately able to carry forward in a following re-incarnation in Bangladesh (described in Chapter 5). I pulled together our findings in East Pakistan in my final reports to FAO and in the first soil map of the Bangladesh-to-be, later summarised in Brammer (1996).
Traumas in 1970-71
East Pakistan was struck by a megacyclone in November 1970. Cyclones had seemed a normal part of the climate: nine cyclones affected coastal areas in the 1960s, one of which had reached Dacca in May 1965 (when I happened to be out of town). The November 1970 cyclone was much bigger: eventually it was estimated that 300,000 (perhaps 500,000) people lost their lives. The UNDP office put me in charge of organising UN agricultural relief and rehabilitation efforts. We had carried out soil surveys of almost all the affected areas by then, so I was familiar with the different environments and what might be appropriate measures in different areas. I did what I could …
… but I never found out the extent to which it was used or usable. Political conditions were deteriorating in late-1970 and early-1971, culminating in political strikes and eventually the West Pakistan military crack-down in April 1971. To cut a harrowing story short, I was evacuated to Rome. For most of the next six months, I was seconded to the World Bank in Washington to assist with the East Pakistan Land and Water Sector Study then in preparation, for which I produced the first 1:500,000-scale hydrological and land use maps of the province. The Bank then sought to attract me to a project in Mexico. Fortunately, at the critical point when I had to make a yes/no decision over the telephone, I was out of my room back in FAO headquarters, and before the second call came from Washington, FAO had offered me a post in Indonesia and I was able to decline the Bank offer. What actually came next will be described in Chapter 4.
Brammer H. 1996 The geography of the soils of Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka