A documentary-maker from India is appealing for help tracking down the descendants of a pioneering British dam-maker from Surrey who dedicated his life to saving millions of people.

Santhana Ibrahim, 27, has spent six years researching the life of John Pennycuick who sold his family home in Camberley to fund the dam in Madurai, India in the 19th century.

The dam is considered an engineering marvel when it was opened against all odds in 1895.

Pennycuick, who studied at the former East India Company Military College in Addiscombe, Croydon,  diverted the west-flowing Periyar River towards the east so it could irrigate dry land. This transformed the lives of millions of people who continue to benefit from clean water more than 120 years later.

Pennycuick and other British engineers braved severe flooding, poisonous insects and a lack of money to complete the project. He sold his home in Branksome Park Road, Camberley to fund the dam. There are memorials including statues and plaques dedicated to Pennycuick.

Having grown up with family stories of Pennycuick’s bravery, Mr Ibrahim wants to use his passion for film-making to bring clean water to his family and friends in India.

He says that by using Pennycuick’s pioneering dam-building technique, the Indian government could prevent water being polluted by riverside leather factories and bring salvation to millions more people.

The self-taught film-maker saw his uncle Raja Sharif blinded by acid after working in the factories and says clean water will save the lives of people who rely on the rivers for their livlihoods.

Mr Ibrahim, who lives in Godstone Road, Purley, said: “It would be a dream come true to trace John Pennycuick’s family and speak to them about their ancestor’s work. Are they proud of him? Do they know what he has done for the people of India? His work is like a fairytale in India, his story is passed down through generations.”

Mr Ibrahim plans to travel back to India this August to film the documentary which does not yet have a title. He is looking for a producer to work on the project with him.