The Indus Water Treaty In Post Uri Situation – Analysis


By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

In the over frenzied atmosphere post Uri attack in Kashmir, the media as well as the analysts have been freely discussing ways to punish Pakistan.   Options that should be left to the Army, the Intelligence agencies and the Ministry of External Affairs are being openly discussed with pros and cons and even recommendations are being made!

One of the issues that has come up for punishing Pakistan is a review of the Indus Water Treaty that has stood the test of time and in the past has survived despite wars, near wars, acts of terrorism and other conflicts between the two countries.

Following the Uri attack, suddenly a large number of Indus Treaty Experts have emerged and while most of them have recommended only review some have even suggested out right cancellation.

There are reports that a formal exercise is being under taken at the highest level to review the treaty.  Three issues come to my mind.

One- The treaty though facilitated by the World Bank, the latter is not a Guarantor to the treaty. Yet any unilateral amendment will bring in international criticism.

Two- India has not made any infrastructure ready to divert or reduce the waters of the three western rivers- the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab. This should have been done more as a deterrence and is much more lethal than a nuclear one.

Three- Being totally dependent on glacial waters, the availability of water from the western rivers in Pakistan is already reaching critical proportions.  Any further reduction will mostly affect the lower riparian States like Sindh and Balochistan whose people are already suffering discrimination and oppression. Of late India has openly taken up their cause.

A paper written by me on the treaty in 2010 is being reproduced in full for the benefit of the readers.

The Indus Water Treaty- Its Dynamics and Reverberations

By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

As late as February 13 this year, many members of Pakistan National Assembly expressed great concern over the alleged violation of the Indus Water treaty by India in building dams across rivers meant for Pakistan and warned of a possible war between the two countries over this issue.

These threats of war are nothing new to India.  Even before the treaty of 1960, late Suhrawardy as Prime Minister of Pakistan threatened that Pakistan will go to war on the sharing of waters of the Indus.  These threats have been repeated periodically and so regularly by people at the political, military, bureaucratic and technical levels that these threats have lost their meaning now.  At one point, one of the influential editors of the Urdu press Majeed Nizami of Pakistan went one step further and threatened that Pakistan will have to go for a nuclear war over the river waters issue.

It should be conceded that the Indus Water Treaty has survived despite wars, near wars, acts of terrorism and other conflicts that have bedevilled the relations between India and Pakistan.  This has been, as much acknowledged by many of the saner voices from Pakistan too.

In April 2008, Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioner, Jamaat Ali Shah in a frank interview conceded that the water projects undertaken by India do not contravene the provisions of the Indus water treaty of 1960.  He said that “in compliance with IWT, India has not so far constructed any storage dam on the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum rivers ( rivers allotted to Pakistan for full use).  The Hydro electric projects India is developing are the run of the river waters, projects which India is permitted to pursue according to the treaty.”

Yet many in Pakistan at very senior levels have been whipping up frenzy among the people of Pakistan that “India is stealing the waters of Pakistan”.

Since 2004-2005 when the opposition to Bagilhar Project came out into the open, there has been a continuous attempt on the part of Pakistan to push India to renegotiate the Indus Water treaty.

This would mean going back to sharing of waters during the lean season and other extraneous factors and also to ignore the enormous changes that have taken place on both sides of the border in the last fifty years. This would also mean rewarding Pakistan for its failure to manage its scarce and life giving waters to optimum use.

Unfortunately, some Indian scholars without understanding the past history of negotiations with Pakistan have supported the idea.  One of the senior analysts of India is said to have opined that “in negotiating an Indus Water Treaty 2, would be a huge Confidence Building Measure as it would engage both countries in a regional economic integration process.” A pious hope but an unrealistic one.

The Indus Water Treaty is unique in one respect.  Unlike many of the international agreements which are based on the equitable distribution of waters of the rivers along with other conditions, the Indus Water Treaty is based on the distribution of the rivers and not the waters.

This unique division of rivers rather than the waters has eliminated the very hassles and conflict that would have followed had equitable distribution of water been based on current usage, historical use, past and potential use etc. People who advocate a revision of the treaty including some influential ones in India should realise the trap that India will be getting into.

Briefly, the Indus Water treaty, having discarded the joint development plan for developing the Indus Basin as suggested by some international bodies, allotted the three western rivers of the Indus basin- the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum to Pakistan and the three eastern rivers Sutlej, Beas and Ravi to India.  The Treaty in its Annexures acknowledged certain rights and privileges for agricultural use of Pakistan drawing water from eastern rivers and similarly India drawing water for similar reasons from the three western rivers.

The treaty permitted India to draw water from the western rivers for irrigation up to 642,000 acres that is in addition to another entitlement to irrigate 701,000 acres.  India has so far not made full use of its rights to draw this quantity of water from the western rivers.  These allocations were made based on the water flows and usage as existed on April 1960.

While India is not permitted to build dams for water storage purposes (for consumptive uses) on the western rivers passing through India, it is allowed to make limited use of waters including run of the river hydroelectric power projects.  The Bagilhar project, the Kishenganga project as well as Tulbull (Wular) that come in this category are all being opposed by Pakistan on the narrow definition as to what it means by storage.

Pakistan disputed the Indian contention that Bagilhar project was a run of the river project and that the storage called pondage was necessary to meet the fluctuations in the discharge of the turbines and claimed that the water will ultimately go to Pakistan.  Since talks over a long period remained unsuccessful, the World Bank intervened though it made it clear that it was not a guarantor of the treaty.

A neutral expert was appointed by the World Bank.   The neutral expert Professor Lafitte of Switzerland while delivering the verdict, rejected most of Pakistan’s objections but did call for minor design changes including the reduction of the dam’s height by 1.5 metres.  The expert did not object to the right of India to construct dams for storage purposes purely for technical reasons for the efficiency of the turbines and did not even call the project as a dispute between the two countries but as “differences.”

The Tulbul project similarly envisages a barrage to be built at the mouth of Wular lake to increase the flow of water in the Jhelum during the dry season to make it navigable.  The other disputed project, is the dam across Kishenganga River to Wular lake for generation of hydro electric power.  The contention of India has been that in both cases the waters will ultimately go to Pakistan.

In the case of Kishenganga Project, Pakistan also has objected to the storage of water on the Neelum river on the principle of “prior appropriation” though the project on the Pakistan side the Neelum- Jhelum power plant downstream had not then started.

In all the projects objected to, Pakistan has brought in a new dimension to the dispute on security and strategic considerations which are strictly outside the ambit of the Indus treaty.  The reasoning goes thus-   by regulating the waters of the Chenab and the Jhelum, India has the capability in times of war to regulate the flow of waters to its strategic advantage.

There is no doubt that Pakistan will be facing increasing water shortages in the days to come leading to prolonged drought in many of its regions.  The reasons are many but some of these are Pakistan’s own doing.  The availability of water even now has reached critical proportions.

  1. Global warming over a period of time has depleted the flow of water in the Indus(the major supplier) which depends mostly on glacial runoffs.
  2.  As in other Himalayan regions like the Kosi in Nepal, the rivers carry very heavy sediments that result in silting the dams and barrages thus reducing the availability of water for cultivation.  Proper and periodic maintenance have ben lacking.
  3. The canals that feed the irrigated lands are not lined resulting in seepage and loss of water.
  4. There is mismanagement in use of water by using antiquated techniques and heavy cropping of water intensive varieties of farm products. Optimum crop rotations have not been done extensively as it should have been done to save water.
  5. No serious effort has been made to improve the storage for intensive seasons like Kharif.
  6. Dwindling water flow has also been affecting power generation.
  7. The discharge of fresh water into the Arabian sea has dwindled considerably ( less than 10 MAF) which has resulted in  the sea water  pushing further into the estuaries and beyond, making water in those areas unfit for cultivation.

Just as in India, there are many water disputes among the four provinces in Pakistan, but there, it is one- Punjab against the other three and Punjab happens to be the upper riparian.

There is a larger political dimension to the whole problem of the river water distribution between Pakistan and India.  To Pakistan the Kashmir issue is irrevocably linked to the Indus water treaty as the headwaters of all the rivers of Pakistan and meant for Pakistan flow through Kashmir and India happens to be the upper riparian state. The fear exists that India could manipulate the waters to starve Pakistan.

From the Indian point of view, Pakistan need not fear if the Indus Water treaty is implemented both in letter and spirit.   What is needed is a constructive approach from Pakistan and India should also respond constructively on a crisis that is reaching a very critical stage in Pakistan.  Some analysts feel that the “waters issue” may take precedence over Kashmir.

If one were to interpret the spirit of the Indus Water treaty and not the letter, there has to be some give and take from both sides.  It needs a conducive environment and mutual trust that are scarce commodities in the relations between India and Pakistan.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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