Chennai a sprawling metropolis with a population of over seven million and located towards the southern tip of India facing the Bay of Bengal is about to face a severe drought the likes of which it hasn’t seen in over a decade in 2017.

The city not having a perennial water source has it’s water requirements being handled by the water reservoirs for most it’s history and very recently by desalination plants which have been brought online.

The city’s water requirements is mainly taken care off by the Veeranam, Poondi, Red Hills, Chembarambakkam and Cholavaram reservoirs. Whilst the history of each of them is unique in itself in this article I will concentrate on the oldest among them, the Veeranam Dam

Origins of the Veeranam Lake

The Veeranam Lake is located 235 kilometres away from Chennai and was constructed in the early Tenth Century during the time of Greater Cholas and it is a 16 kilometre (9.9 mi) long dam located in the Cuddalore district

It was constructed by Rajaditya Chola an army general and son of the great Parantaka Chola 1 and was named Veeranaaraayanar after one of the many names his illustrious father had.

This wasn’t a one-off construction by the Cholas. The Cholas who ruled the Tamil Country in India on and off for over 10 centuries were known to be prolific builders. Their architectural marvels not only included majestic temples and intricate sculptures but only civic works including the Kallanai Dam which is the second oldest dam still in use in the world.

The first chapter of the modern Tamil classic Ponniyin Selvan begins with the hero riding on the banks of the Veera Narayanar lake. This chapter gives a detailed insight into the lake and the names of the different rivers that flow into the lake.

The British Rule

In the early 19th Century Sir Arthur Cotton, the Civil engineer who harnessed the power of Krishna and Godavari, the great rivers of Southern India, studied the lake in detail. It is indeed surprising to note that even after 900 years he did not find any serious defect in the dam. The only major problem which he found was the narrowing of the mouth of the Vadavar River that connected the lake to the Kollidam and the tendency of the bund to breach when filled to the brim.

It is quite interesting to note that Cotton’s report is full of anglicised Tamil terms — totie (thotti or tank) and calingula (from kalingu or sluice) being two commonly used words.

The 20th Century to the present

As India gained Independence and Chennai’s population started growing leaps and bounds it became imperative that it have it’s own sources of water. Thus in 1967 the newly elected Chief Minister mooted the idea of supplying water from Veeranam to the capital city Chennai. But he passed away in 1969 before seeing his idea come to fruition. His successors executed the project which at that time was the largest independent contractor project ever to be sanctioned n Independent India. A plant was set up in the nearby district to make pre-stressed concrete pipes with the help of a greek based firm

But delay in sanctioning foreign exchange and allegations of corruption and all-around incompetence meant that the project did not move ahead and after the dismissal of the DMK government in 1971, the only reminder of the project was the line of pipes which was littered around the Madras to the Cuddalore route and used for various film shoots and in some cases even as accommodation for families.

Later in year 2000, with the rising water scarcity in Chennai, the government embarked on a 360 degree water harvesting programme one of which was the veeranam project and water finally started flowing to Chennai in 2004.

What can we learn from Veeranam ?

We are in the cusp of the greatest climatic changes affecting humanity since the last ice age and if most experts are to be believed the next major world war will be fought not over oil or land but over water. Thus it is very imperative that we learn from these ancients who all those years ago, created the dam which has practically saved a metropolis of 7+ million residents from water scarcity.

Conserving and protecting our natural resources helps protect not only us but also our future generations