The Ganges Canal


Duration:12 years


Country: India

What did this project achieve?

Build an irrigation system to serve the Doab region of India

The Ganges is a canal system that irrigates the Doab region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Doab is a term used in India and Pakistan for the water-rich area of land lying between two converging rivers.

The system was devised and built by engineer Proby Thomas Cautley between 1842 and 1854. It was funded by the British East India Company (BEIC).

The BEIC was a company set up to trade with what’s now mainly South East Asia. It ended up mostly trading with parts of China and seizing control of much of India.

The canal scheme was built in response to the Agra famine of 1837-38, when over 80,000 people in north west India died of starvation after the summer monsoon rains failed.

The Ganges canal is primarily an irrigation system, though it also has a navigation channel and locks. The system consists of a main canal 437km long and around 6440km of distribution channels.

The network has an upper and a lower canal. It irrigates nearly 9,000km² of fertile farming land in 10 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakand.

Hydro-electric plants were later added along the network. They can generate around 33MW when running at full capacity.

When it opened in 1854, the Ganges canal was the largest and most expensive man-made waterway in the world.

Difference the project has made

The Ganges Canal is still a source of agricultural success and prosperity in the districts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhan.

Later work extending the scheme led to the establishment of the first engineering college in India, the College of Civil Engineering at Roorkee – now known as the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee.

How the work was done

Challenges building the scheme faced included initial opposition from Hindu priests, who were concerned that the waters of the Ganges – a holy river for Hindus – would be imprisoned.

After meetings with local priests, project designer Proby Thomas Cautley agreed to leave a gap in the system’s dam, through which water could flow unchecked.

The engineer won further support from religious leaders by repairing bathing ghats along the river as part of the work. A ghat is a flight of steps leading down to the water’s edge.

Workers started digging the canal in 1842. The project team had to make their own bricks, brick kilns and mortar for the scheme.

Challenges for engineers included the numerous mountain streams that threatened the effectiveness of the canal.

The project team built an aqueduct near the city of Roorkee as the ground on the route fell away sharply at this point. The 25m-high aqueduct carries the canal for half a kilometre.


One of the most engineered spaces on the planet.

Anthony Acciavatti

author, Ganges Water Machine.

Fascinating facts

The idea for the Ganges Canal came from engineer Proby Thomas Cautley. He spent six months surveying the Doab region on foot and horseback, before persuading the British East India Company to pay for the project.

As part of efforts to overcome opposition from local religious leaders, Cautley inaugurated the dam with a ceremony dedicated to the Hindu god Ganesha.

Ganesha - also known as Lord Ganesh – is widely revered as the remover of obstacles and the god of beginnings.

People who made it happen

  • Designer: Sir Proby Thomas Cautley

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