Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 15

Sind and Egypt

According to a famous saying, the greatest benefactor of mankind is he who makes two blades grow where formerly one grew. This is an especial motto of perennial irrigation.

This chapter is written mainly about a land where the largest or one of the largest schemes of perennial irrigation is in action, the province of Sind, India. The Lloyd or Sukkur Barrage, which controls this scheme, was opened in 1932.

The making of soils from the weathering of rock is a process which takes a very long time. The geologist, Mr. T. C. Chamberlin, in an address given at a Conference of the State Governors of the United States of America, held in 1908, wishing to impress upon his authoritative hearers the tremendous importance of the conservation of the soil, did so in the following words: 'We have no accurate measure of the rate of soil production. We know it is very slow. It varies with the kind of rock ... Without any pretensions to a close estimate, I should be unwilling to name a mean rate of soil formation greater than one foot in 10,000 years on the basis of observation since the glacial period. I suspect that if we could positively determine the time taken in the formation of the four feet of soil over our average domain, where such depth obtains, it would be found to be above rather than below 40,000 years. Under such an estimate, to preserve a good working depth, surface wastage should not exceed such a rate as one inch in a thousand years. If one chose to indulge in a more liberal estimate of the soil-forming rate, it will still appear, under any intelligent estimate, that surface wastage is a serious menace to the retention of our soils under our present management. Historical evidence enforces this danger. In the Orient there are large tracts almost absolutely bare of soil, on which stand ruins implying former flourishing populations. Other long-tilled land bears similar testimony. It must be noted that more than the loss of fertility is here menaced. It is the loss of the soil body itself, a loss almost beyond repair. When our soils are gone, we too must go, unless we shall find some way to feed on raw rock, or its equivalent.'

This is a very succinct description of the final danger of unwise cultivation of stationary weathered soils. But the soil of the Indus Valley in the alluvial plain of Sind has not been formed from the rock beneath it. It is soil which has been formed at varying, and, mostly at great, distances. The greater part of the preliminary weathering has been done in the Himalaya, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush Mountains. These mountains have crumbled under the action of frost, heat, ice, snow and rain, and the crumbled stuff has been carried by innumerable streams and rivers, uniting near the border of Sind into one great river some three hundred miles from the sea. The alluvial plain of Sind is the result of this river's annual floods.

Sind, therefore, has not to fear the dangers of surface wastage, of which Mr. Chamberlin spoke. Contributions to her soil have been made on a far more generous scale. To her the highest mountains of the world have paid their annual tribute for countless years, in the thin layer of silt, which is spread out by the flooding Indus. The soil of Sind is, therefore, very deep compared to weathered soils; in place of the four feet of weathered soil, of which Mr. Chamberlin spoke, there is as much as forty feet formed by waferlike sheets of mud.

Further, in contrast to stationary soils, there is not any sharp distinction between soil and subsoil. An alluvial soil, seen in the cutting of an embankment, is featureless, but it also lacks uniformity, for it is the result of a series of irregular floods carrying their silt hither and thither in no regimented way. The two soils, stationary and alluvial, are quite distinct. Here, then, there is ample opportunity for the objectivity of man -- different soils, different treatment. Or if subjective, here lies a trap -- different soils, similar treatment. Has man avoided the trap or has he let himself be caught in it? Let us see.

Let us here again quote Mr. T. C. Chamberlin, with his neat, succinct way of saying things: 'Some of the soluble substances ... formed at the base of soils are necessary plant foods, while some are harmful; but what is more to the point, all are harmful if too concentrated. There is need therefore that enough water pass through the forming soil, and on down to the ground-water and out through the under-drainage, to carry away the excess of these products. An essential part of the best adjustment is thus seen to lie in a proper apportionment of the amount of water which goes through the soils. If this be not enough, the plants will suffer from saline excess.'

I have myself been able to examine alluvial soil in Sind, not as an expert but as an humble observer. I have been able to observe it in a cutting ten feet deep, above which the surface was soaked by irrigation. After the surface-irrigation, the water sank through the whole ten feet and disappeared into the earth at the foot of the cutting.

Just at the edge of my cutting there grew a border of stunted grass and a low ericaceous plant. Farther from the edge was the irrigated crop. When the irrigation ceased, the upper layers of soil, wetted by a transverse spreading of water, began to dry owing to sun and wind. Eventually the upper two or three feet became quite dry and when I scraped it powdered off as fine, pale sand. But below this dry surface the layers down to the foot of the cutting remained moist for months after a good soaking, as I discovered when I scooped out small tunnels into its interior. The lower layers, then, have a notable capacity of storing water and, with it, soluble plant foods.

The humble desert plants, the stunted grass and ericaceous shrub, knew this, for they sent slender roots straight through the upper dry layers down to the moist layers. Some of the roots traversed the whole ten feet of the cutting and disappeared into the earth at its foot. These astonishingly long, fine roots, in places where they are numerous, look like combed hair. They show quite clearly that they only rely for a short time upon the upper layers of the alluvial soil for their food and water. It is upon the lower layers that they rely for their continued sustenance.

The character of an upper dry, and lower moist, area after a soaking with water appears to be similar in all deep, river-made soils in arid climates, such as those of Sind, Egypt, Irak and the like. This character was described in 1906 by Professor Hilgard, as found by him in the San Joaquin Valley in California. He found also a third, dry, airy area, below the moist area, due to the soaking water pushing the air in the soil in front of it through smaller and smaller channels, until it could no longer bubble up. The compressed air in this third area prevents the further fall of water, except in cracks through which it finds its way to the ground water.

This third area not only holds up the water in the middle area and prevents further loss downwards, but it also supplies that area with oxygen, which helps the microbes in it to prepare soil-foods for the plants. The arrangement, in short, is a strikingly perfect one, as one might expect, for how else could vegetative life be possible in these climates? It is possible because of the storage of water and foods and air in the voluminous middle layers, which are themselves protected against evaporation by the upper dry layers. It is, indeed, just another example of the usual, that where there is life under unusual and difficult conditions, there will be found so appropriate and delicate an arrangement that men used to declare they saw in it the revelation of a higher intelligence.

And they might well in all reverence take that view now. Certainly when they separated out the acres of Sind for themselves under the Sukkur Barrage and Canals System, they placed their own intelligence in immediate relation to this higher intelligence. That the Sukkur System can be acclaimed great, there is no question. It is great. The making of it is indisputable testimony to great technical intelligence. But is the planning and execution also testimony to higher intelligence? Here one may hazard that, from the point of view of the soil itself, the lack of higher intelligence so characterizes the industrial age, that its existence in this planning would be exceptional. The Sukkur Barrage in its aims has not been exceptional. It has been sponsored by modern, practical, money-making men, who have made such tragic blunders in the agricultural world elsewhere.

Nature's way of soaking these soils in arid countries is precisely the same as that by which she forms them, namely, by an annual overflow of the river. When men originally brought in irrigation to direct the overflow to their own advantage, they did so by putting embankments to enclose large areas or basins of flat land and then sending the water into them by water-channels. During the period of the flood, water passed on from higher basins to lower basins on the way to the sea, and in each basin silt was deposited. This form of irrigation is known as basin-irrigation. Its chief exponents have been the Egyptians. The waters of the Nile were enclosed in the embanked basins for fifty days or so, some movement occurring all the time as water passed from the higher to the lower basins, eventually to be drained back to the river. In that fifty days the soil of each basin got a continuous soaking and upon it a certain amount of rich silt settled. The soil of each basin was cropped each year and, after the harvest, was left uncropped until the next season of flood.

Now, if this method of irrigation is carefully considered it will be seen that it is an adaptation of the natural cycle of events to the Egyptians' use. The water lay upon the land for the same fifty days or so of the natural flood of the Nile and received the same deposit of mud. Throughout their long history, the Egyptians did not alter the natural cycle. It was only in the last half-century that perennial began substantially to replace basin irrigation, and the reason was that perennial irrigation permitted two crops in place of one. It earned, therefore, the blessing given to those who make two blades grow in place of one.

This advantage of perennial irrigation is brought about by a permanent high level of the river above a dam or barrage placed in its course. Main canals lead off the heightened water from above the dam and minor canals distribute it. It makes constant use of the artificial high level of the river, and, using the water that flows in the river all the year round, it is obviously not wasteful but conservative. But there is one daring thing about perennial irrigation; it alters the age-long habit of river-made soils in arid countries. What it is made to do is, in fact, to treat these arid soils as if they were soils dependent upon frequent rain, for by means of locks and gates there is a giving of water every ten to twenty days.

The system increases the products of the soil not only by putting more land more frequently into use, but also through more frequent crops it makes greater demands on the stored plant-foods; at the same time it does not cater for an annual settlement of silt as does the basin method. It gets its results by an exploitation of the alluvial plain and not by an application of its natural habit; thereby issuing as it were a challenge to nature. It might, therefore, call forth a retaliation from nature. Actually it does do so and the retaliation takes the form of an accumulation of salines in the soil. These alkaline salts lead to a deterioration of the soil and, when advanced, prevent the growth of crops altogether.

'The Egyptians, writes Mr. G. V. Jacks in The Rape of the Earth, during the long period in which they used basin irrigation, 'lived on the soil's income and won lasting security against natural hazards at the expense of progress. With the introduction of a more efficient technique into Egyptian agriculture, the soils have steadily deteriorated. "Soil alkali" has become a serious and growing menace, cotton yields are falling. The deterioration has been due in the main to the substitution of perennial for basin irrigation.' Basin irrigation suits the soil and is akin to it. Perennial irrigation, on the other hand, is not akin to it. But, at a time of the unchallenged dominance of money, the perennial form was unavoidable as 'a substitution indispensable for the cotton growing, by which Egypt has advanced and enriched itself' (Jacks). Nevertheless, in its very success, it has staged once more the drama of money versus the soil, with money in the role of victor. But nature will not be gainsaid. The very source of Egypt's life suffers, and though the present generations gain the future ones will lose. 'Egypt's advance to modern civilization is being bought with soil fertility,' is the conclusion of Mr. Jacks.

That great agricultural genius, the late Professor F. H. King, who became Chief of the Division of Soil Management, United States Department of Agriculture, in his book, Irrigation and Drainage, 1898, reflecting upon 'the fields of the Nile kept free from alkalis for thousands of years', and upon the present increase of salts 'to so serious an extent that many acres have been abandoned', was struck by the thought, which like a flash in the dark illumines the brain of genius, that these great irrigators must have tried out so obvious a modification of basin irrigation as is the perennial. 'The probabilities', he wrote, 'are that long long ago the more rational methods (?) now being practised had been tried and found inadequate or inapplicable, on account of the accumulation of alkalis which they permitted, and the old irrigators learnt to be content with a system which, although more wasteful in some ways, still kept the dread alkalis under control ... It is a noteworthy fact that the excessive development of alkalis in India, as well as in Egypt and California, are the results of irrigation practices, modern in their origin and modes, and instituted by people lacking in the traditions of the ancient irrigators, who had worked these lands for thousands of years before. The alkali lands of to-day, in their intense form, are of modern origin, due to practices which are evidently inadmissible, and which, in all probability, were known to be so by the peoples whom our modern civilization has supplanted.'

In India the adjacent provinces of the Punjab and Sind have both been widely developed by perennial irrigation, and both have reacted, even in a brief span of years, by increasing alkali. In The Summary of Results, published in 1940 by the Agricultural Department of the Punjab States, one reads: 'In the Punjab vast areas of alkali soils have come into existence.' In Sind there have been but a few years of perennial irrigation, for the Barrage was only opened in 1932. Nevertheless, in the 1937-8 Report of the Department of Agriculture, it is stated: 'This constant application of irrigation water, for raising crops in such intensity, has brought in complex soil problems, the solution of which is necessary to the success of the projected agricultural progress of the Province ... Though precise information is not available, it is known that there are thousands of acres of kalai (the local name for alkali) land where no crops would grow. Besides these large stretches, there are scattered all over the Province, almost in every holding, small pieces of kalai land where crop either does not grow or grows very poorly.' Since the opening of the Barrage, as is above stated, precise information is not available. A few researches made, where it was possible to contrast pre-Barrage with post-Barrage conditions, show that the warning of Mr. T. F. Main, Director of Agriculture in 1929, that 'under perennial irrigation one must look forward to vast areas more or less infected with salt' is a prophecy likely to be fulfilled. Alkali is already the most urgent problem in Sind, and the most effective remedy that has been found, is, says the Report, to put large quantities of irrigation water, 16-32 inches, depending upon the salinity,' to soak the soil. In other words, the most effective remedy is a temporary return to basin irrigation.

When the soil is capricious and tends to deteriorate, more is involved than a diminution of crops. The whole life-cycle deteriorates too. In reading the Report one is impressed by the great amount of disease, not only of the soil, that there is in the Barrage area. It is true that at present no immediate linkage between disease and alkali has been investigated, but then nowhere is the relation of the soil to the disease of the life-cycle it supports properly recognized. It is not put in the foreground of official agricultural reports anywhere and only appears more or less by chance.

Cotton is the crop to which the Barrage System is particularly suited, yet in Sind this fluffy beauty is as delicate as a Brighton invalid. Here are some of its enemies and diseases: jassids, white ants, pink and spotted boll worm, black-headed cricket, dusky cotton bug, lucerne caterpillar, red pumpkin beetle, root rot, boll rot, red leaf. So it is officially stated: 'There is no doubt that the losses suffered annually by the cotton growers of Sind, on account of damage to their crops by insect pests or fungoid and bacterial diseases, are immense, and scientific research work on these pests and diseases is most urgently required.'

Re the animal phase of the cycle, the system was not designed for Sind's famous red cattle, as is evidenced by the fact that 'since the commencement of perennial irrigation, the yield and quality of the jowar crop in Sind have deteriorated in many tracts'. Jowar is a common food of cattle and with its deterioration 'there is a general deterioration in the breed'. A 'heavy toll' in animals is taken by such diseases as liver fluke, rinderpest, parasitic gastritis, haemorrhagic septicaemia, and so on.

Lastly comes the human phase. The chief disease, which affects the countrymen of Sind is malaria, and, re malaria, the Public Health Report of 1938 states: 'Its incidence has increased with the inauguration of the Lloyd Barrage and Canal Construction Scheme.' It is not possible to compile accurate statistics in rural Sind, but the prevalence of malaria is brought home to landowners, because its weakening effect on the labourers is produced when there is the greatest call for their labour. Some harvesting actually has been abandoned because of the shortage malaria produces.

The increase of malaria is connected up with the System in the following way: the System brings more water; more water brings more pools; more pools bring more mosquitoes, and the bite of mosquitoes leads to the infection of malaria. But this quite possibly is not the whole story. The Sind soils tend to be alkaline, with, in the language of science, a pH of over 7. Low degrees of alkalinity can be neutralized by the carbonic acid which the roots secrete, but, if alkalinity increases, the water of the soil cannot hold iron and manganese to the same degree as it can when it is neutral, and these two are the chief metals of the red matter of the blood.

Under the Barrage System only a small investigation of pH values has been made, when it was found that the pH had risen from an average between 7 to 8.5 in pre-Barrage days to an average between 8 and 9.5 in post-Barrage. If this were generally true, then the plants in the post-Barrage period as eaten by the Sindhis would have less of the metals that form the strength of human blood. Malaria in particular, is due to parasites in the blood itself. The weaker blood favours the parasites of malaria and so malaria is increased for subtle reasons of the life-cycle and not merely from more pools and more mosquitoes.

Whether this sequence will be found or recognized to be a further example of how we humans must be thought of as part of a life-cycle or whether it is rejected, there can be no question that the growing of two blades where one grew in Sind has ushered in a cycle of sicker soil, sicker plants, sicker animals and sicker humans. Were there a definite measure of character and morals, it is possible that even now these would be found to have deteriorated. In the general opinion of those with knowledge of Sind, there has been a notable deterioration, but this is not attributed by them to a slackening of efficiency and authority under provincial self-government.

Mr. Jacks proclaims that alkali is not as dangerous as erosion, because it can be remedied. The most effective remedy in Sind and elsewhere is the soaking of the soil. Rice growing is also effective, for in the growing of rice, the soil is covered with water and thoroughly soaked. Both processes are of the nature of the basin irrigation, which in Egypt for so many centuries completely protected that wonderful land against alkali.

What will be the end in Sind? Will the stubbornness of nature and her dominion over all terrene life once again either force men to comprehend, or will it make their habitations barren? Is an old, old story in the East again to be repeated? Sind, like Egypt, is buying her way into a money-ruled civilization with her soil-fertility. Will the agricultural scientists, obedient not to the soil but to their urban masters, enable this money-dominance to hold its position against the affronted land? Will they, by their fragmented methods, be able to go further and establish a stable, healthy life-cycle in Sind? Will they fail?

For myself, I look for an answer to the man, who of all men seems to me to have had the widest and wisest vision in these great matters, the late Professor F. H. King, and return to his words: 'The alkali lands of to-day, in their intense form, are of modern origin, due to practices which are evidently inadmissible, and which, in all probability, were known to be so by the people whom our modern civilization has supplanted.'

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. Introductory
2. Rome
3. The Roman Foods
4. The Roman Family
5. Roman Soil Erosion
6. Farmers and Nomads
I. The Land
II. The Nomads
III. The Farmers
IV. Nomadic Migrations and Farmers
7. Contrasting Pictures
8. Banks for the Soil
9. Economics of the Soil
10. The English Peasant and Agricultural Labourer
11. Primitive Farmers
12. Nyasa
13. Tanganyika
14. 'Earth Thou Art'
15. Sind and Egypt
16. Fragmentation
17. East and West Indies
18. German Colonies: The Mandates
19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
South Africa
20. The United States of America
21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
22. An Historical Reconstruction
The Initiation
The Institution
The Achievement
23. Recapitulation
24. Action

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