Approximately one-third of the irrigated area of Tamil Nadu is watered by eris (tanks). Eris have played several important roles in maintaining ecological harmony as flood-control systems, preventing soil erosion and wastage of runoff during periods of heavy rainfall, and recharging the groundwater in the surrounding areas. The presence of eris provided an appropriate micro-climate for the local areas. Without eris, paddy cultivation would have been impossible.

Till the British arrived, local communities maintained eris. Historical data from Chengalpattu district, for instance, indicates that in the 18th century about 4-5 per cent of the gross produce of each village was allocated to maintain eris and other irrigation structures. Assignments of revenue-free lands, called manyams, were made to support village functionaries who undertook to maintain and manage eris. These allocations ensured eri upkeep through regular desilting and maintenance of sluices, inlets and irrigation channels.
The early British rule saw disastrous experiments with the land tenure system in quest for larger land revenues. The enormous expropriation of village resources by the state led to the disintegration of the traditional society, its economy and polity. Allocations for maintenance of eris could no longer be supported by the village communities, and these extraordinary water harvesting systems began to decline.

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The tanks, in south Travancore, though numerous, were in most cases oornis containing just enough water to cultivate the few acres of land dependent on them. The irregular topography of the region and the absence of large open spaces facilitated the construction of only small tanks unlike large ones seen in the flat districts of the then Madras Presidency, now Tamil Nadu.
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