From the lowlands of Assam to the Highlands of Scotland

EXCHANGE VISIT #6: FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

By Sukanya Saikia
Tea Research Association

When you see cows and goats roaming around or rather lazing around on the roads, creating havoc for the commuters, it’s Assam. But when you see sheep grazing in lush green highlands and cows that are very different from the ones you see back home, then wait, you are in Scotland! It’s time for the second exchange meet of the UKIERI project for the Indian team to visit the UK. Our visit lasts for three weeks starting at Edinburgh, Scotland. So this time it has been my utmost privilege to attend the World Water Congress XV held there by the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) from 25th – 29th May, 2015.

The grandeur of Edinburgh Castle (and the unpredictable weather!)

The grandeur of Edinburgh Castle (and the unpredictable weather!)

I would like to start with Edinburgh. As lovely as the name itself, Edinburgh is a thrilling city. The journey from London by train was striking as the train moved along the coast of the North Sea (of course you need to sit on the correct side of the train to get that view, and I am the lucky one in this case). Home to the Edinburgh Castle and many historical structures and buildings, all of which looked like castle to me, I had the most amazing time in those five days. Streets buzzing with people (mostly tourists) moving around, bagpipers playing, quirky shops, street performers, variety of cafes and Scotch whisky stores, cool breeze (I couldn’t find a stronger word for it, as it was freezing for me!), Edinburgh will win your heart at the first sight. It definitely will soothe your eyes almost immediately. And what added to my delight was that I could very well understand the Scottish accent! To take that to my credit, I would say that sometimes it’s very hard to comprehend (as told by my colleagues in England)! Moreover, working on climate, and not talking about the weather of Edinburgh won’t be fair. But what can I say about it…That’s the beauty about it; it’s so unpredictable that you can’t be certain about it. It’s sunny this moment and pouring the next! So take your raincoat and umbrella (which would just turn inside out; thanks to the wind) the next time you’re there..

Presenting our iPoster at the World Water Congress

Presenting our iPoster at the World Water Congress

Coming to the conference, I presented a poster entitled Climate-smart landscape management in North East India: determining the influence of climate variables on tea production under the session Climate Change, Impacts and Adaptation. The poster reflects the preliminary results of our analysis that we have undertaken for the North Bank tea growing region of Assam. It is my first international conference at an international location and also my first time in Scotland and the experience I would say is mind boggling! The sessions varied from transboundary water resources issues, water governance, the monetary and non-monetary aspects of water, climate change loss and damage in terms of water, management, food security, links with energy, food and environmental sectors and a lot many water-related issues. There were some special sessions on water and mountains, water-energy-food nexus etc. A documentary was also screened at the conference named as A Thirsty World which echoes the circumstances of people living in various parts of the world having access to very little water or no water at all. Besides presenting the paper, I felt that it opened a whole new set of opportunities in terms of networking with other delegates who have come from various parts of the world, working on a diverse range of topics. Knowing the views and arguments of such renowned scientists and professors is an excellent prospect in itself. I had to push myself to speak to such expert people, and set targets for interacting with as many people as possible. I even managed to get some business cards! Conferences like this provide a brilliant platform to build your own network for future collaborations and projects.

Me with a bagpiper at the Edinburgh Castle conference reception

Me with a bagpiper at the Edinburgh Castle conference reception

As part of the conference, some social events were also organized for networking. One such event was an evening hosted by the Congress at the 12th century old Edinburgh Castle where we had access to the inside of the castle! From the top the whole of Edinburgh was visible and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful! We could see the Crown Jewels Exhibition, Queen Anne Building, St. Margaret’s Chapel and Jacobite Room. There were highland dancers and musicians performing. I must say that this was an exclusive opening for the delegates to soak up in the electrifying atmosphere. The conference as a whole was a grand success. Moreover, I also managed to take a highland tour starting from Edinburgh to the Cairngorms Mountains, Inverness, Loch Ness, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. I would highly recommend anyone going to Scotland to take this tour. I was spellbound by the extent of green and yellow highlands and the friendly locals that greet you there! Also thanks to Fergus, our driver, for making the journey a very enjoyable one by narrating tales of kings and queens…

Next, I am heading to Southampton for two weeks to engage with our research. We will discuss the development of a DSS (Decision Support System) for our project, as well as fit in a couple of trips to visit Cornwall to speak to the Tregothnan tea estate manager and attend the Ethical Tea Partnership annual meeting in London. I am excited and looking forward to these events. I must extend my thanks Ellie for making me feel at home in the UK and arranging all our exciting work activities; Ellie and Niladri for being such supportive mentors; and to my new friends in Southampton – Patrick, Connie, Heather, Hayley, Vera and Serina – for baking wonderful cakes. This will be my last visit to the UK on our project, but I hope to come back soon. I will miss the wonderful people I have met and will cherish the rest of the time I have visiting on my last trip. Let me tell you I am having the time of my life; exchange programs like UKIERI definitely make your life worth living!

Advertisements

Shade, food, and an egg’s lost luggage!

EXCHANGE VISIT #5: POSTGRADS FIRST EXPERIENCE OF LIFE IN INDIA

By Connie Clark and Patrick Sayers
University of Southampton

We are Connie and Patrick, two MSc students studying Applied GIS and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton. Our average day is spent looking at satellite images of the world on computers. In many of our assignments we often find ourselves wishing we could visit these places to see what they are really like, and to provide real-world context to problems that we are trying to solve. Sometime in the middle of our coursework-strewn semester, such a unique and exciting opportunity arose to fulfil this dream (as part of a UKIERI project) and we jumped at the chance to conduct research in Assam as part of our masters dissertation projects.

Patrick and Connie

Patrick and Connie

Fast-forward a month or two and this opportunity to visit Assam started to seemed somewhat daunting. Arriving into Jorhat, after 3 flights, with no sleep in 36 hours, having also lost Connie’s luggage, it was fair to say that we were a little unenthusiastic about what was to follow. Upon arriving in India we found ourselves in quite a state of ‘culture-shock’. Our first experience of India was the roads, which seemed like complete chaos, with countless near-misses with other road users and the many animals that seem entirely unconcerned by the streams of traffic. However, once we arrived at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI), the whole experience became a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. We were made to feel incredibly welcome by everyone there and they provided an immense amount of support for our field research. We were straight out into the field on our first full day there, collecting data on our two very different projects…

Why does lowland tea need shade trees?
Unlike some other parts of the world, the tea plantations in Assam are in the lowlands, and because of this, shade trees are essential to protect the growing tea from the sun and produce a favourable microclimate. Yet despite their importance, I [Connie] noticed that few remote sensing studies (using satellite images) have looked into shade trees – most consider only how to detect tea, with some even complaining about the shade trees getting in the way. So my project focuses on these misunderstood trees, considering whether the density of shade trees in an area can be estimated using low resolution satellite imagery that is freely-available to everyone. I plan to use high resolution imagery to train a classification, and in the field I wanted to collect data on the shade trees to act as a form of accuracy assessment.

The vast expanse of tea in one of the plantations we visited

The vast expanse of tea in one of the plantations we visited, complete with shade tree canopy

To do this required collecting GPS locations of the shade trees, which seems easy enough in theory. Yet having never been to a tea plantation, I didn’t quite know what to expect; and on the morning of our first day in the field, I soon realised that the field work I had planned, from the comfort of my home in Southampton, was impossible. There were too many trees in a vast area of tea to collect data on all of them, and most of the area was inaccessible to me as the tea is too closely planted (and too thorny) to move between. So I had to quickly consider alternative sampling strategies, and decided it would be best to collect the locations all trees along the edges of a section (one part of a plantation), and some of the rows in the middle where it was possible to walk along narrow tracks. In each of the three plantations visited, I collected data in sections with different densities of shade tree to ensure I captured data across a range of conditions. Now back in Southampton, all that’s left is to get some cloud-free imagery (which might be a challenge over Assam!) and get properly stuck into my project, to see whether it is actually possible to find shade trees from space.

Tea drinking tastes nice but what do workers eat?
In many of Assam’s tea estates, the practice of inter-cropping takes place, where other crops are grown alongside the primary crop of tea. In particular, rice paddies are often grown in the drainage areas between the stands of tea by plantation workers, and are an important source of food. Whilst regulations are set for the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, none exist for the growing of rice paddies as these are non-commercial crops. This is potentially an issue as the leaching of the chemicals from the tea stands can potentially enter the areas used to grow rice. My research is attempting to investigate whether leaching is taking place and calculate the amount of land that could be used for inter-cropping to provide adequate food sustenance for tea workers’ livelihoods.

Paddy field inter-cropping

Paddy field inter-cropping

During our trip I [Patrick] was able to visit three separate tea estates and collect soil samples as well as locational information about land cover. Compared to the previous places I have completed fieldwork (spectacular mountain ranges, glaciers and of course the bog-filled New Forest), the tea estates were a stark contrast. I was overwhelmed by their scale, with a sea of lush green leaves in every direction. What appears a perfectly neat and continuous surface of green conceals an intricate network of surprisingly deep drainage ditches that eventually widen into vast channels. Aside from the weather and the fairly rugged terrain, fieldwork was actually easier than any other environment I have worked in due to the fantastic support given to me. Estate managers showed keen interest in our projects and were very helpful in suggesting good locations to collect samples. Data collection was made much easier due to the assistance of plantation workers in collecting soil samples, whilst myself and Debojit (TTRI technician) recorded GPS locations and catalogued soil samples. In total we collected 270 samples in all weathers, ranging from searing heat to torrential downpours (it wouldn’t be a geography field trip without rain!). Back in the TTRI lab, I begun the slow and somewhat painstaking process of sorting, labelling and drying the samples collected in the field. It was at this point that 270 samples didn’t seem like the best idea! However, I persevered, and I’m looking forward to analysing the results to see what can be determined, in conjunction with processing high resolution satellite imagery to determine potential inter-cropping areas.

Experiencing Assamese Culture
Our reasons for wanting to visit Assam extended beyond simply academic interest, and the experience proved incredibly fulfilling. The flora and fauna is unique compared to anywhere else we have visited and we were able to see monkeys, giant snails and water buffalo during our visit. One of the most unforgettable experiences was seeing working elephants in Kaziranga National Park being being ‘driven’ along the road by children who were mounted on their backs. Their size and the speed they moved were amazing. Aside from the characteristic tea plantations of the landscape, another iconic part of Assam we couldn’t miss was the mighty Brahmaputra river. With parts of the river 10km wide, this is something that can only be appreciated in situ.

IMG_2546

Elephants in Kaziranga National Park

Our exposure to Assamese culture extended into the diverse cuisine. Portion sizes in India are unrealistically large and ensured that we were continually full. One of our particular favourites was Gulab Jamun – a sweet which Connie compared to a mini sticky toffee pudding. On a side note about food, we were informed by one of the ladies in the institute that in the local Assamese language, Connie means ‘egg’. We found this hilarious, especially as Connie doesn’t like eggs, or tea for that matter. But no visit to Assam would be complete without sampling the excellent tea. A truly unique experience was the opportunity to join in the daily tea-tasting in one of the tea estates, with tea that was freshly processed from the factory just hours before. This was a dream come true for Patrick who is an avid tea-drinker, and all round tea fan. Tea-tasting is taken just as seriously as wine-tasting in vineyards, and has as many technical terms to describe each and every aspect. It is a moment of great importance for the tea estates, as it determines the guide price that each variety will be set at at auction. It turns out that tea-tasting is very difficult and best left to those in the know.

Tasting tea fresh from the fields

Tasting tea fresh from the fields

Our initial reasons for coming was both for collecting important data for our MSc research projects, but also to experience Assamese culture and working in an entirely new setting. Whilst we were able to fulfil and exceed these expectations, the main thing we have taken from our experiences has come from the diverse range of people we have met. Everyone at Tocklai was extremely welcoming and hospitable, and it is for this reason that we both had such a memorable trip.  Thank you to the University of Southampton, TTRI and UKIERI for providing us with such a fantastic opportunity.

Us with the project team in the grounds of TTRI. Left to right: Sukanya, Connie, Patrick, Debojit and Niladri

Us with the project team in the grounds of TTRI. Left to right: Sukanya, Connie, Patrick, Debojit and Niladri