Ch 1. Downing College

Ch 2. Gold Coast/Ghana

Ch 3. East Pakistan

Ch 4. Zambia

Ch 5. Bangladesh

Ch 6. Retirement

Ch 7. Afterthoughts


Ch 6. Enjoying an active retirement 1987−present


Back to Bangladesh

At 62 (retirement age in FAO), I did not feel ready to retire; (I still don’t at 92!). I settled in Hove, about as near to the Equator in Britain as I could get (having remembered how cold Cambridge was in winter in the 1940s) and spent a year as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The objective was to write up my material on Bangladesh in a development context. In the event, I didn’t get much written. Serious floods in Bangladesh in 1987 and 1988 stimulated international donors to seek what could be done to prevent such recurrent disasters. So, in 1988, I found myself invited back to Bangladesh: first on a UNDP-funded Agriculture Sector Study, and then the UNDP-funded Flood Policy Study which led to the World Bank-led Flood Action Plan (FAP) on which I was a visiting consultant from 1989 until 1995. Between times, I spent a month in Hanoi on a UNDP-funded preparatory disaster management study, two weeks on a FAO project identification mission on the Irrawaddy floodplain in Burma (now Myanmar) and a month in St Lucia in the Caribbean on a World Bank-funded rehabilitation study after hurricane Debby in 1994.


On a field trip in Bangladesh during the FAP period, I recall encountering persons living alongside the west bank of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna river where the embankment was threatened by riverbank erosion. They pleaded with me for groynes to be built to prevent the river devouring their land, which their families had probably owned for generations and on which they depended for a living (and their social status). I recall feeling humbled, as a professional, by the experience of not being able to offer them hope of a technical solution to this awful problem. In Bangladesh’s quasi-feudal society, people expect their patrons – in this case the government – to protect them, regardless (even oblivious) of the practicality and cost (in the same way as, during negotiation of the Flood Policy Study, government representatives had asserted that flood protection for Bangladesh was not a matter of economics: it was a human right, which donors must support).


… and to Zambia

I also spent a month back in Zambia. The Director-General of FAO had raised an interesting question. He had observed that the FAO agroecological zones map of Africa showed large areas of land in Zambia well-suited for agriculture, and had asked why much of it was unused. Someone had noticed that there was a lime quarry north of the capital Lusaka and had suggested that lime might be a remedy for the acid soils.


Soil acidity, I found, was not the limitation. It was socio-economic conditions that were impeding agricultural development in large, sparely-populated parts of the country; (this was in the days before environmental considerations entered into land evaluations). In traditional farming, women were the cultivators; the role of men was mainly to cut and burn the trees that had grown in the 10−20 fallow years between cultivation periods. But most of the able men who could cut trees had gone off to find employment on the Zambian Copper Belt or in South African mines, so the traditional system of soil fertility renewal had broken down, and crop yields and farm incomes were low. Moreover, fertilisers – which might have to travel 1,000 miles by rail and road from ports in South Africa or Mozambique − were much too expensive to use on subsistence or locally-marketed crops in interior parts of the country. With low population densities, too, and poor rural roads, it was uneconomic for farmers to produce crops for urban markets beyond a radius of a few miles; poor water supplies for drinking, livestock or irrigation use were also limitations in some areas. Physical soil capability was not the only criterion that influenced development potential, therefore; the limitation in this case was economics. I don’t think that my puncturing of a panacea technical solution was welcomed in HQ!

Book writing

At the end of the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan in 1995, I at last got down to writing up my experience in that country. The first book, published in 1996, put on the record our soil findings and was addressed particularly to students and visiting consultants. I went on to write five more books on various aspects of agricultural development and disaster management in Bangladesh, then in 2004 what I thought would be the seventh and final one which pulled together the information on floods and flood management that I had gained while working on the Flood Action Plan. I had the books published in Bangladesh because that is where I wanted the information to be used.

Throughout my retirement, I continued to write journal articles on soils and agricultural development (listed in a separate section). Inter alia, I wrote articles for the Tropical Agriculture Association of which I was a member, and for several years contributed cartoons drawn by a former FAO colleague, the late Tony Smyth: see Figure 6.1.

Figure 6.1 Cartoon in Tropical Agriculture Association Newsletter, December 2001

Research studies

A new interest then appeared. In 2004, I had learned of the problem of arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh and West Bengal, then successively of its occurrence in Nepal and Myanmar (Burma). The arsenic was not only affecting drinking water; it was also being taken up by rice grown with contaminated irrigation water. That prompted me to initiate a study seeking to find out more about the causative environmental conditions as a possible means to predict where else in the world the problem might arise. Initially, I thought to arrange this through the Royal Geographical Society, but Professor Keith Richards of the University of Cambridge suggested that we undertake the study though the Geography Department there. That had the additional advantages that, by funding this through Downing College, the college benefitted from Gift Aid to help fund student field studies and the university did not make an administrative charge of 20 percent (as also would have done the RGS).


We were highly fortunate in being able to recruit Peter Ravenscroft to undertake this study between 2005 and 2008. A hydrogeologist with several years’ experience of groundwater development in Bangladesh, he identified four different natural causes of arsenic pollution of groundwater and its actual or potential occurrence in more than 70 countries on all five inhabited continents. I contributed a chapter on agricultural implications to the book we published (Ravenscroft et al., 2009), and later authored or joint-authored three technical papers on the subject (Brammer, 2008; Brammer & Ravenscroft, 2009; Brammer, 2009).

Then, on a visit to Bangladesh in 2009, I organised studies at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh, to follow up earlier reported findings of high arsenic contents in some rice samples from areas where groundwater used for irrigation was known to be low in arsenic. These studies confirmed that − under the conditions under which rice is generally grown, in flooded paddy fields − the crop (or some varieties) could accumulate arsenic in low-arsenic areas (i.e., the plant was an arsenic scavenger). Late in 2012, I was informed that further analyses of the several hundred soil and rice samples from Bangladesh analysed for arsenic showed that some also contained high levels of cadmium, which is toxic to humans at even lower concentrations than is arsenic; later analyses also showed high lead levels in some samples. I therefore organised further field studies in 2013 to try to find causes and remedies (unfortunately disrupted by pre-election political disturbances in Bangladesh). Poor Bangladesh: it has enough problems to contend with without having toxic elements in it staple food crop!


One other activity that has occupied part of my time and interest since 2008 is supporting and contributing to a study of old maps of Bengal, again organised through the Cambridge Geography Department and mainly being carried out by consultant researcher Mrs Pat Saunders (who, by one of those remarkable coincidences that life occasionally throws up, we discovered had lived in Chilanga, only two miles from the Mt Makulu research station in Zambia where I had been based in 1972-74, though we had never met). The objectives are to prepare a guideline for use in Bangladesh and West Bengal to maps held in British libraries dating back to Ptolemy’s first map covering the area in ca 150 AD and to try to determine the history of river changes in the region shown on successive maps up to modern times.


Writing more books

In 2008, I re-analysed all the data in the 34 reconnaissance soil survey reports on East Pakistan/Bangladesh in order to prepare a new physiographic map of the country and produce a new book (Brammer, 2012) in which I put on the record all my knowledge and experience of the geomorphology and soils of that country as a platform for others to build on.


Also in 2008, I attended a meeting in London on climate change in Bangladesh between representatives of the UK and Bangladesh governments. At that meeting, I was disturbed by the anecdotal evidence quoted for on-going climate change. I took up the latter point with Bangladeshi delegates after the meeting, advising that they could obtain factual evidence for any change in climate by analysing the 24 years of data recorded since 1984, the end of the period for which data had been analysed on the FAO AEZ study referred to in Chapter 5, but I found no interest.


Figure 6.2 Plaque received from Bangladesh Agricultural University 2009

Therefore, with the help of the FAO Representative in Bangladesh and CEGIS (the Centre for GIS studies), I obtained 50 years of daily temperature and monthly rainfall data from Dhaka, and spent many months in 2010-11 analysing them myself to measure actual climate trends (at first with a hand calculator, until I learned how to use spreadsheets!). Important findings were that maximum temperatures in the hot dry season had decreased (which I considered might be due to the great expansion of dry-season irrigation of boro paddy since 1960) and that – contrary to popular assumptions and assertions − neither temperature nor rainfall variability had increased, nor had flood, drought or cyclone frequencies increased. However, virtually all the country’s meteorological stations are in urban areas (which have expanded rapidly in recent decades) and are thus subject to a ‘heat island’ effect, so it is uncertain what has actually happened to temperatures in rural areas where crops are grown. I wrote up my findings in my ninth book on Bangladesh (Brammer, 2014). I acknowledge the great help that I had from Dr Jie Ding, then a graduate research student in Cambridge, in preparing the many figures that went into that book.

I also had a post-graduate research student in the Geography Department, (later Dr) Park Jong-Soon, analyse satellite images to measure changes on the coast of Bangladesh between 1984 and 2008 (to follow up an earlier academic study that had measured changes between 1792 and 1984). He found a net annual gain of almost 20 sq km of sediment accretion over erosion in the Meghna estuary, which – if it continued − I considered would be more than sufficient to counter predicted rates of sea-level rise in the estuary in the 21st century. I also drew attention to the possibility of raising land levels on tidal floodplains by natural tidal sedimentation ('warping'). I included these findings in my ninth book (Brammer, 2014), drawing attention also to the diverse physiographic regions in Bangladesh’s coastal area and the different, area-specific, mitigation measures that might be appropriate in each of them to counter predicted levels of sea-level rise.

Then, to make the number up to ten, I wrote an illustrated 100-page summary volume on Bangladesh’s landscapes, soil fertility and climate change (Brammer, 2016), a Bengali translation of which will be published in 2018.

Still batting

A new interest and occupation arose in 2011 when I was invited onto the editorial committee of the journal Agriculture for Development published by the Tropical Agriculture Association of which I had been a member since my retirement from active service (well, from paid service!). In addition to editing, I’ve written a number of articles for the journal and was given the Association’s Award of Merit in 2012.

In 2006, I was honoured to receive the Royal Geographical Society’s Busk medal for scientific discovery and research (Figure 6.3); and I was further honoured in October 2013 to be invited to become the Honorary President of the Downing College geographical society and to have the society named the Brammer Geographical Society.

Figure 6.3. After receipt of the Royal Geographical Society’s Busk medal 2006

I have continued to write papers for academic journals; (I am easily provoked by areas of ignorance that I identify!). I also regularly referee articles on Bangladesh for a number of academic journals. A list of my main career publications is given in a separate section.


What more remains to be done, I wonder, before I feel ready to retire? I have so far enjoyed a physically and mentally active retirement, probably a reflection of the stimulating career challenges that I experienced. I’ve undoubtedly become a workaholic in the past few years. I have a stack of books and several years of unread journals waiting to be read when I can overcome the sense of guilt when I try to do so. However, I have helped to look after my youngest brother’s garden on my monthly visits to Yorkshire. Until recently, I also helped friends in Hove with an allotment, and I walk as much as I can to try to keep fit. I also keep in touch with old friends: in 2005, friends from my Gold Coast, East Pakistan, Bangladesh and FAP days gave me an 80th birthday party in Downing, attended by the High Commissioner for Bangladesh and Mr Mohiuddin Ahmed, the publisher of my books in Bangladesh; and another such gathering was organised for my 90th birthday in 2015.


Despite the sometimes tortuous working and living conditions in testing tropical environments that I experienced, I am probably as fit and well now at 92 as if I had suffered a less-challenging, home-based career. However, I did not get away completely scot-free. Several times after I retired, I had solar keratoses (pieces of hard skin) removed from my face and hands with liquid Nitrogen, and I later had two minor operations to remove skin cancers from an eyebrow and an ear lobe, no doubt a consequence of ‘getting my knees brown’ in the tropics (as we were advised to do in those early days). In 2004, I had an ulcer on my neck removed, the biopsy for which indicated Bowen’s disease which only later, on the global arsenic study, I discovered could have been related to my drinking arsenic-contaminated water long ago on fieldwork in East Pakistan/Bangladesh; (the Dhaka water supply is not affected).

I slipped a disc at Rome airport in 1985 which has subsequently occasionally immobilised me for a few days. Not retributive, but more likely genetic, I have had several attacks of gout since 1979 which I know how to control by dieting (but with painful consequences when I have occasionally lapsed). Genetic, too, I have had an increasing hearing problem for the past several years, such that I have mainly given up attending meetings. The problem is not volume; it is selectivity. My doctor didn’t think that a hearing aid − no matter how hi-tech and expensive – would solve the problem, implying that he thinks the problem is not with my ears but what lies between them. He could be right!


Brammer H 2008 Threat of arsenic to agriculture in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Economic & Political Weekly XLIII.47: 79−84

Brammer H 2009 Mitigation of arsenic contamination in irrigated paddy soils in South and South-east Asia. Env. Int. 35: 856−863

Brammer H and P Ravenscroft 2009 Arsenic in groundwater: a threat to sustainable agriculture in South and South-east Asia. Env. Int. 35: 647−654

Ravenscroft P, H Brammer & K Richards 2009 Arsenic pollution: a global synthesis. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, U.K.

Brammer H 2012  The physical geography of Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka

Brammer, H 2014 Climate change, sea-level rise and development in Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka

Brammer H. 2016  Bangladesh: Landscapes, soil fertility and climate change. University Press Ltd, Dhaka 

Reminiscences of a career in Geography

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