To make India productive, to integrate it more fully with the global capitalist economy that was in formation, to exploit more effectively its natural resources to feed Britain’s industrialisation, British engineers and investors and administrators looked to master the unevenness of water, its extreme seasonality in India; and they sought to conquer space. Both of these quests unfolded between the 1830s and 1870.

Half a century after Roxburgh’s time, the Godavari delta was still “entirely without any general system of irrigation, draining, embankments or communications.” This was the verdict of Arthur Thomas Cotton (1803-1899), the museum to whose memory opened this chapter. Like Roxburgh’s before him, Cotton’s problem was the distribution of rainfall across the landscape. His task: “counteracting the irregularity of natural supplies of water.”

“One year a portion of the whole destroyed by the overflowing of the rivers,” Cotton observed, “in another, the crop is destroyed by a failure of the rains over three-fourths of the district.” He was convinced that “not an acre...need be dependent at all” upon the rains if a comprehensive system of irrigation were introduced. He insisted that the Godavari delta needed not a piecemeal restoration of existing irrigation works, but rather “works of a general nature.”

Perennial irrigation; an improvement in the “roads and bridges” of the region; a restoration of the port of Kalinga (“Coringa”) so that it could fulfil its potential as “incomparably the best port” between Hooghly and Trincomalee – such investments in infrastructure would free the district from its uneven and capricious rainfall.

Cotton made a fervent case for government intervention.

India was unlike Britain, he argued; the rules governing public expenditure could not be considered akin to the principles of household economy. The problem was that “there is almost literally no capital to enable landowners to make improvement.” An outlay of three hundred or four hundred thousand rupees each year by the state “would put life and activity into the whole district” – in time, revenue would flow into the treasury far exceeding what the state might spend.

Possessed by evangelical self-confidence –nothing less than a sense of destiny – Cotton went further. He condemned what he saw as his countrymen’s “ lower ourselves to the level of natives” instead of “diligently applying the means which god has placed in our hands to benefit the countries he has given us charge of.”

Cotton found the support and the money for his grand scheme. In 1852, he completed his barrage at Dowleswaram. But his dreams were bigger. Cotton imagined a network of canals that would, one day, bring the Himalayan rivers to the southern tip of the peninsula. He also saw that the rivers had unrealised potential for navigation. In 1867, Cotton dreamed of a link between the Brahmaputra River – its upper reaches were still at that time unknown to British explorers – and the Yangzi.

“The throwing open of all India to all China, the access of a country containing 200 millions of people to the produce of a country occupied by 400 millions,” he wrote, would be “a work of such magnitude as that nothing approaching it has ever been seen in the world.”

In the British imagination as well as in administration, Peninsular India was quite distinct from the “heartland” of Gangetic India. Separated by half a century, William Roxburgh and Arthur Cotton in turn sought to mould a riverine landscape that attached the dry interior of the Deccan plain to the coast of the Bay of Bengal. They sought both to harness and to overcome the political inheritance that distinguished South India from the north.

In the former, political power was contested within a system of small states that arose to fill the void of the troubled Mughal Empire; the hydraulic landscape was dispersed in thousands of tanks, wells, dams, and weirs, many of them now lay in a state of disrepair after decades of warfare – not least the warfare that accompanied English expansion. But Cotton’s counterparts along the Ganges were no less anxious to see what could be done to “improve” nature: to repair or replace the hydraulic remnants that scattered the valley.

They faced different challenges, they chose different solutions, but they shared many assumptions with their counterparts in the south. Just two years after Cotton’s barrage was complete, a project still more monumental opened its floodgates: the Ganges Canal, at the time (and still today) the largest in the world.

The Ganges Canal was the creation of Proby Cautley – Arthur Cotton’s contemporary, classmate, and eventually his bitter rival.

Cautley arrived in India in 1819 as an artilleryman. A few years after his arrival, the first Anglo-Burma war in 1824 drew many of the East India Company’s engineers across the Bay of Bengal; their absence created new openings in India for those without formal training.

Like so many Company officers, Cautley was an autodidact. He learned his craft through practice and observation. Working in different ecological settings, Cautley and Cotton embraced different hydraulic approaches. By the 1860s, they fought their battles in a bitter and public war of pamphlets.

Cotton accused Cautley of making fundamental mistakes in the design of the Ganges Canal; at stake was not only prestige, but also a debate over the ownership and financial management of India’s hydraulic works. Along the Ganges, as everywhere else in India, the infrastructure of water control long preceded British rule. But in the nineteenth century British engineers turned the Ganges valley into one of the most “thoroughly engineered” landscapes in the world.

The Gangetic plain’s hydraulic transformation began with the Company’s effort to restore the old Yamuna Canal’s supply of water to Delhi. The waterworks dated back to pre-Mughal times: Delhi’s water infrastructure owes much to the rule of Sultan Iltutmish in the thirteenth century. He ordered the construction of an elaborate web of tanks and step wells.

The Mughals brought them to a new level of sophistication. They built a complex of ornate gardens along the banks of the Yamuna River, laid out around the tombs of Mughal leaders. They watered their new capital at Shahjahanabad from a canal and an interlocking system of smaller canals and drains. Emperor Akbar ordered the renovation of the West Yamuna Canal – first built by the ruler Firoz Shah – for irrigation, and extended it to Delhi.

Akbar’s Canal Act of 1568 declared the canal’s aims to be “to supply the wants of the poor,” to “leave permanent marks of the greatness of my Empire by digging canals,” and to ensure that “the revenues of the Empire will be increased.”

The British found the canal gone to ruin, yet traces of its sophisticated engineering remained. In 1820, British engineers restored the water supply to Delhi through the West Yamuna Canal. They followed quite consciously in the footsteps of Mughal architects.

With this success in hand, local administrators turned to the restoration of the eastern branch of the Yamuna Canal.

Second in command of this project was young Proby Cautley, who had no prior experience of hydraulic engineering. Cautley was open, perhaps unusually open, to learning from local practices: he suggested adapting local well-building techniques to provide a stronger foundation for bridges than usual European methods could sustain in the soils of the Gangetic plain.

As he took charge of the canal project, Cautley ordered the construction of rest houses every ten or twenty miles along the path – in keeping with the old Mughal tradition of caravansarais along the Grand Trunk Road.

Besides water, Cautley’s interests encompassed archaeology, paleontology, and botany. In 1831, while supervising the digging of a well as part of the canal project, he discovered evidence of an ancient settlement at Belka. With even more enthusiasm, Cautley and his colleague Hugh Falconer began collecting fossils of mammals and birds and fish, eventually shipping to the British Museum in London a collection that took up 214 crates. The history of science in nineteenth-century India often saw the blurring of lines between disciplines.

By the middle of the 1830s, though, Cautley was first and foremost a water engineer. In 1835, he became the Company’s superintendent of canals. His predecessor in that role, John Colvin, had left him with an idea: to build a canal to bring the waters of the Ganges to the arid Doab (the name means “between two rivers”) that lay between the Ganges and the Yamuna.

Early investigations concluded that the canal would be too expensive – and probably an engineering challenge too far. The calculus of costs and benefits, so central to the Company’s mode of administrative thought, changed in 1837 when a major famine devastated the drought-prone Doab. By 1840 plans were in place to build what would become the Ganges Canal.

Excerpted with permission from Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers And Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia’s History, Sunil Amrith, Allen Lane.