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Indus Water Treaty: Beyond The Rhetoric – Analysis


Other than being held responsible for causing further bitterness in relations between the two nations, India will not gain anything for now by abrogating the Indus Water Treaty.

By Iftikhar A. Drabu

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), a water sharing agreement, covering three Eastern and three Western rivers, between India and Pakistan, was signed nearly 60 years back. The Treaty has withstood the acrimonious relationship between the two neighbours, including the three wars. It is not surprisingly then that the IWT is considered as one of the most successful water-sharing arrangements in the world today.

However, of late, the two signatory countries, particularly India, have expressed their displeasure with it, with experts from each side maintaining that the Treaty is unfair towards their country. Going beyond the demand for its review, some experts are seeking its abrogation while some others are asking for the stoppage of the flow of waters, guaranteed by the Treaty, to Pakistan. The State of Jammu & Kashmir, though not a signatory but an important stakeholder, is also unhappy with it and blames the Treaty for its economic woes. In fact, in 2002 a resolution was passed in the J&K State Legislative Assembly, seeking review of the Treaty.

Among the issues being raised, particularly by the J&K, are those related to development of hydro power in the State, given the restrictions the Treaty puts on storage volumes on the three western rivers.


If one looks at the terrain and topography of the three western rivers, none of them have ‘implementable’ potential for construction of large water storages or reservoirs. Both Chenab and Indus have a high gradient and pass through narrow gorges which limits their storage potential. On the other hand, unlike the Chenab and Indus, Jhelum has a very mild gradient and flows through the very wide expanse of the valley which makes the topography ideal for a storage scheme, but then any storage would be at the cost of the valley itself. Any large storage will result in inundating the valley itself.

However, there is a good potential for constructing a number of smaller storages, possibly in cascade, on the tributaries of Jhelum and the same are permitted under the Treaty – the volume of these storages would though be small. It is worth mentioning here that till date, no storage of any type has been constructed by India on these rivers. Just to highlight here, if the storage volume permitted by the Treaty for Jhelum basin had been available, it could easily have moderated the level of flooding Kashmir experienced in September 2014.

Hydro power potential

The three rivers have an identified hydro power potential of 16000 MW out of which Chenab basin contributes nearly two thirds of it.  A series of hydro power projects, in cascade, have been identified on the Chenab basin and once these projects are completed, the hydro potential of the basin would have been exploited to its fullest. Except for one project (Bursar HEP), none of these projects have a storage potential of any significance. With or without Indus Water Treaty, these schemes could not have been developed as large storage schemes, like say Tehri HEP or Bhakra Nangal Project, but would have been operated only as peaking or diurnal stations. Even with the currently identified projects we would be using only less than half the available storage provided for in the Treaty for this basin.

As regards Jhelum, half of its total hydro potential has already been developed. But as explained above, any large storage proposal will inundate the whole valley. Probably that is why the Treaty recognised this fact and did not provide for any storage on the main Jhelum river. Its tributaries though have potential for storage schemes but of limited capacity.

The hydro power potential of the Indus has remained virtually unexploited, possibly because of the remoteness of the sites and the high cost of construction, power evacuation, operation and maintenance of these projects.

So, when the topography of all the three river basins is such that they have very limited potential for large storage schemes, one wonders how anyone can argue that the Treaty has adversely impacted the hydro power potential of the State.

Stopping the flows

Let us now quickly look at the demand for stopping of the flow of water to Pakistan. Is this something that is practical and achievable?.

Since India is anyway using nearly all the flows of the eastern rivers, any blockade of the flow of water to Pakistan would essentially mean blocking the flow of the three western rivers which incidentally contribute more than 80% (117 billion cubic metres – BCM) of the flow of the Indus basin. The stoppage of the flow of water to Pakistan can be achieved either by storing this water and/or diverting the flow of these rivers.

To illustrate, the volume of water 117 BCM is enough to inundate, every year, nearly 120,000 sq kms to a height of say 1 metre. To put it in perspective, the said volume would inundate the whole of Kashmir valley to a height of 7 metres in just one year. In reservoir volume terms, every year we will need 30 storages the size of Tehri to store the above volume. Where are we going to find such large land masses to store these waters?

Timeline wise since it takes nearly a decade to construct a typical storage the size of Tehri, even if we start constructing 30 such storage(s) tomorrow, the actual impounding of the water would happen only in say 2030. Till then, Pakistan will not actually feel the pinch of the impounding. And every year thereafter we will need complete 30 such large storages to continue blocking the flows of western rivers to Pakistan. As one can see, it is not a practical proposition.

The river(s) diversion option is equally preposterous. Not to talk of three, diverting flows of any one of the three rivers would involve construction of a man-made river over hundreds of kilometres and would pose enormous challenges in design, construction and maintenance. Any such proposal would require investment of lakhs of crores of rupees, acquisition of thousands of hectares of land and would take decades to complete.

In either the storage or the diversion proposal, Pakistan will not feel any impact of either for at least next 30 to 50 years. Needles to mention, the environmental impact of either of the above two options would be catastrophic.

Abrogating the Treaty

To conclude, from the above, it is very clear that if India today were to abrogate the Treaty for now, nothing would change on the ground. In terms of water availability for Pakistan, it would continue to receive the flows till India plans and completes its storage and/or water diversion projects.

While the flow of water to Pakistan would continue even after the Treaty has been abrogated, any such action would though have other fallouts. With the Indus basin supporting 90% of Pakistan’s agriculture, and employing more than 40 % of the population, the common man in Pakistan will see it as India’s attempt to strangulate and starve his people and his country. It would arouse fear and create uncertainty in his mind. Without Pakistan actually feeling any impact of the abrogation of the Treaty, such an action would only provide fodder to lobbies in Pakistan who are keen to see deterioration of relations between the two countries. It would suit their agenda and would be a god sent opportunity to exacerbate the tensions between the two countries.

So India should not even contemplate abrogating the Treaty – without actually impacting Pakistan in short and medium term. Such an action while being morally, legally or diplomatically inappropriate and against acknowledged international conventions, would only cause further animosity between the two countries. And this time round, it would not just be the governments but the public at large. Other than being held responsible for causing further bitterness in relations between the two nations, India will not gain anything for now by abrogating the Treaty.

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