By Caroline Harper
Since the development of modern humankind began, the establishment of civilizations depended upon one major resource: water. It is central to life; societies only prosper if water is abundantly available to satiate the people, their agriculture, and their industry. For this reason, the growth of humanity is riddled with the modification of water systems, with the most disruptive tactic being damming. This history began over 2,000 years ago, when the first known dam was constructed in Tamil Nadu, India along the Kaveri River, though this revolutionary dam did not become a global phenomenon until British capital motivations took over the the global economy in the 19th century. The global implementation of this irrigation system throughout the earth’s waterways sparked a worldwide revolution in trade and agriculture, enabling the connected massive expansion of human population, environmental alteration, and global economy, thus marking the initiation of the Anthropocene.
By controlling water, one controls their destiny. Human beings’ ability to manipulate the environment in order to control their destinies is a key characteristic of the Anthropocene, and the first localized instance of this environmental control occurred with domination of a key water system in India for the purpose of expanding agriculture. For approximately 11 thousand years, human beings have depended on agriculture to support population growth; the limiting factor to the mass expansion of agrarian societies was water. Humans depended upon natural cycles of water to sustain their crops, a risky process which limited humans in their ability to expand in numbers and also in geographic location as they were locked to areas nearby water. In 150 B.C., King Karikaal of the Chola regime in Southern India designed a revolutionary plan to overcome this limitation and step into the Anthropocene, and he initiated the construction of Grand Anicut, or Kallanai Dam, in the Kaveri river delta. The southern portion of this river splits around the fertile delta of Thanjavur; one portion continues as the Kaveri and the other breaks as the Kollidam. The latter portion is wider and faster, thus an excellent carrier of flood water. To capitalize on these traits, crude stone was sunk to the bottom of the Kaveri River parallel to the riverside-both as a safety measure to divert floodwaters of the Kollidam to the sea and to safely transport the rest into the nearby fertile delta in Thanjavur for irrigation. The resulting structure measured 300 meters long, 4.5 meters high and 20 meters wide and initially provided irrigation for 69 thousand acres of cropland. It was an undertaking to control waterways in a way the world had never seen, and it demonstrated incredible knowledge of the river system. The curvature front to the back incline of the dam seem to be backwards, adverse tactics in water management, but the Kallanai Dam proves them to be the most efficient methods to prevent both flooding and silting, two of the most detrimental effects of damming. Once the Cholas mastered their river system, revolutionizing agriculture, the structure of their society dramatically changed. A bureaucratic system for managing agricultural land took over, replacing collective landholding with private ownership and irrigation by means of private wells. Water management was transferred to official regulators called Neer Kattis. The masterful alteration of the Kaveri River by the Kallanai Dam marks the transition of human society into the agricultural revolution, a system which drastically altered the earth’s systems due to irrigation and also initiated the privatization of property. These are two key components of the Anthropocene, as they cause the mass exploitation of the earth’s resources characteristic of a human exceptionalist mindset. This thinking elevates humans outside and above the environment; the earth and its resources only exist for human exploitation, and humans have capitalized on this superiority. While these impacts were immense, they affected only a localized region. It was the global spread of the Kallanai dam structure that revolutionized human impact on agriculture and consequently the structure of human societies, thus initiating the Anthropocene.
The discovery of the Kallanai Dam’s hydraulic system by the British initiated its spread throughout the entirety of the globe, changing the relationship between human beings and the environment. For hundreds of years, the dam supported agricultural expansion of the Cauvery River Delta, but its revolutionary impacts extended only that far; it was the 19th century that saw the revolutionary spread of the dam design, therefore marking the true initiation of the Anthropocene. In 1799 the British East India Company secured control over the Cauvery delta and the Kallanai Dam which was experiencing flooding due to high levels of sedimentation. Thousands of years of operation without proper maintenance eroded most of the dam. Prominent British engineer, Sir Arthur Cotton, was asked to study the delta, and between 1830-1840 he implemented a plan to strengthen the dam. Its completion dramatically increased water rates to the irrigated delta, allowing the British to expand agriculture and land revenue for this region once again. Shockingly, his plan was not to reconstruct the dam, rather, to restore the dam to the state in which it existed centuries earlier. The ancient Chola hydraulic system, Arthur realized, was superior to any British version. Sir Arthur Cotton henceforth became the messenger, spreading word of a new hydraulic era as his message.
The Kallanai Dam was revolutionary, but the success of the technology could not be a global phenomenon if nobody knew the infrastructure existed. This was where Arthur Cotton enters as the spearhead of the Anthropocene. In the late-18th century, Britain ran their economy according to war capitalism, a system later coined by Sven Beckert, wherein the British unashamedly exercised imperial control over their colonies, exploiting the people and the land, in order to further Britain’s economy. The British were particularly fixated upon gaining control over the East Indies, as this would present an incredible opportunity to capitalize upon the ecological and material wealth of these nations and expand commerce, a greedy desire expressed in great detail in a “Historical view of plans, for the government of British India, and regulation of trade to the East Indies” published in 1793 by John Bruce. In 1874, years into the success of the restored dam, and also years into British control over India, Arthur Cotton worked to capitalize upon capital generation. The tremendous success Cotton brought to India through innovative engineering, methods borrowed from the Cholas, gained him incredible credibility. Cotton delivered a series of three lectures at the School of Military Engineering in December of 1874, encouraging Britain to enact large-scale implementation of irrigation works in their Indian colonies for flood control and more importantly, for agricultural expansion. In his final speech he placed immense emphasis on the Grand Anicut Dam, or the Kallanai, describing the prosperity and security it brought to Southern India’s agricultural systems. The promise of profit was incredibly tempting to the Britain, and the unapologetic strength of British imperialism in India drove them to invoke many of these changes. Throughout the 19th century, Indian waterways were subjected to a multitude of alterations, including privatization, damming, and channeling. Finally, the Chola design created nearly two thousand years earlier was popularized, and not only was it copied throughout the rest of India, but it informed dam design throughout the rest of the world. The Cholas invented the infrastructure necessary to make humans the shapers of the environment; the British characteristically exploited this power, spreading it throughout the entire world and launching the human race into a new geologic era: the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene was initiated by British popularization of ancient technological innovations in irrigation found in the Kallanai Dam, their investment in war capitalism inspiring them to drive agricultural revolution and environmental alteration globally. While this may seem to be a Eurocentric perspective, it is in fact the opposite as the expertise of an ancient Indian civilization was critical to the expansion of masterful dams worldwide. The global impacts of Indian technology was merely popularized by the British, thus their role is critical in initiating the Anthropocene. If one were to visit the Kallanai Dam today, a real possibility as it is still in use, one would not simply be looking at the waters that will irrigate the land of 4 million farmers as it currently supports. One would be looking at an ancient history of agricultural innovation, at the impacts of British fixation on primitive accumulation, at the alteration of the majority of the earth’s water systems by dams, and the reorganization of social structures due to economic expansion. The waters of the Kallanai Dam symbolize the battle human beings have fought to master the natural systems that limit them, and in some ways, it symbolizes their success.
Word count: 1441
Agoramoorthy, Govindasamy. “The future of India’s obselete dams: Time to review their safety and structural integrity”. Futures. Volume 67 (2015): 22-25. Doi: 10. 1016/j.futures.2015.02.001.
Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Alfred A Knopf. New York: 2015. p. 37.
Bijker, Wiebe E.. 2007. “Dikes and Dams, Thick with Politics”. Isis 98 (1). [University of Chicago Press, History of Science Society]: 109–23. doi:10.1086/512835.
Bruce, John, Historical view of plans, for the government of British India, and regulation of trade to the East Indies. And outlines of a plan of foreign government, or commercial oeconomy, and of domestic administration, for the Asiatic interests of Great Britain. London: 1793. California Digital Library. Web. 19 April 2016.
Cotton, Arthur Thomas, Lectures on irrigation works in India; Delivered at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham, Autumn Session, 1874, Collected and Published by Uddaraju Raman, Vijayawada, 1968. 1st ed. University of Wisconsin Memorial Library. Print.
Karmakar, Krishna. “Colonial Rule and its Effects on India’s Rural Economy.” Journal of South Asian Studies [Online], 3.3 (2015): 227-288. Web. 19 April 2016.
V. R. Hema Latha, M. Arulmani. “The Global Politics?…(A New theory on “Universal Dam”).” American Journal of Engineering Research (AJER). Vol 3, Issue 7 (2014): 63-68.