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Indus Water Treaty

About Indus River:

The River Indus rises in Tibet, near Lake Mansarowar. Flowing west, it enters India in the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir. Several tributaries, the Zaskar, the Nubra, the Shyok and the Hunza, join it in the Kashmir region. The Indus flows through Baltistan and Gilgit and emerges from the mountains at Attock. The Satluj, the Beas, the Ravi, the Chenab and the Jhelum joins together to enter the Indus near Mithankot in Pakistan. Beyond this, the Indus flows southwards eventually reaching the Arabian Sea, east of Karachi.

Historical background to Indus Water Treaty:

• During the first years of partition the waters of the Indus were apportioned by the Inter-Dominion Accord of May 4, 1948 which requires India to release sufficient waters to the Pakistani regions of the basin in return for annual payments from the Government of Pakistan. 

• From the Indian point of view, there was nothing that Pakistan could do to prevent India from any of the schemes to divert the flow of water in the rivers. Pakistan’s position was dismal and India could do whatever it wanted.

• After Independence the newly formed states were at odds over how to share and manage water which was essentially a cohesive and unitary network of irrigation. The source and the upper head stream being at the Indian side, Pakistan felt its livelihood threatened by the prospects of Indian control over the tributaries that fed water into the Pakistani portion of the basin.

• Thus the development on both sides over diverting the water raised a dispute regarding the utilization of irrigation water from existing facilities.

• In December 1954, the two sides came to the negotiating table. The World Bank proposal was transformed from a basis of settlement to a basis for negotiation and the talks continued, stop and go, for the next six years.

• Finally with the various odds and even, the treaty was signed by the Prime Ministers of both countries in 1960.

• The Indus treaty stands out as the world’s most generous water- sharing arrangement by far, in terms of both:

1. Water sharing ratio (80.52 per cent of the aggregate water flows in the Indus system reserved for Pakistan).

2. Total volume of basin waters for the downstream state (Pakistan gets 90 times greater volume of water than Mexico’s share under a 1944 pact with the U.S.).

•  The treaty also provides for the partitioning of the rivers by drawing a virtual line on the map of India to split the Indus Basin into upper and lower parts, limiting India’s full sovereignty rights to the lower section (the eastern flowing rivers) and reserving for Pakistan the upper rivers of J & K the so called western flowing rivers.

•  It is the only inter-country water agreement which has the doctrine of restricted sovereignty; where in the upper riparian state has not to interfere in the downstream state.

• The treaty curbs India’s control over the timing and quantum of Pakistan earmarked rivers’ trans-boundary flows.

Pakistan’s obstructionist tactics:

• The treaty provides India’s sovereign rights on eastern flowing rivers (Ravi, Beas and Satluj), Pakistan wants no Indian works on the three “western rivers” and seeks international intercession by invoking the treaty’s dispute-settlement provisions, which permit a neutral-expert assessment or the constitution of a seven-member arbitral tribunal.

•  The run of the river projects are permitted by the Indus treaty within defined limits. By aiming to deny J&K the limited benefits permissible under the treaty, Pakistan wishes to further its strategy to foment discontent and violence there (in J & K).

•  Pakistan is at the brink of water stress level and it is feared that by 2020 per capita water availability may fall to 800 cubic meters. Pakistan has a capacity to store water for 30 days as compared to India’s capacity of 120-200 days of water storage. India has utilized 33 MAF of the allocated share of the Indus basin wisely for irrigation and power generation purposes. 

•  Moreover, India has also successfully developed Dams with gross storage capacity of 17 MAF and power generation of 12,700 MW on eastern rivers but unfortunately Pakistan has only been able to install 6717 MW of hydropower so far.

Kishanganga Hydropower Project:

•  The project was designed to divert water from the Kishanganga River to a power plant in the Jhelum River basin. Construction on the project began in 2007 and was expected to complete in 2016.

•  In 2010, Pakistan exemplified its strategies when it instituted international arbitration proceedings over India’s 330 Megawatt Hydropower project on a small Indus tributary, the Kishanganga (known as Neelam in Pakistan). 

•  Pakistan persuaded the arbitral tribunal in 2011 to order India to suspend work on the project. With Indian work suspended, Pakistan ramped up construction of its own three-times-larger, Chinese-aided hydropower plant on the same river so as to stake a priority right on river-water use.

•  In late 2013, the tribunal’s final ruling gave India a setback when it allowed India to resume work on the project but with condition to ensure a minimum flow of 9 cumecs of water for Pakistan. Prescribing such a minimum flow went beyond the treaty’s terms and the laws of nature.

•  The current arbitration proceedings over the Kishanganga and rattle projects over it are a fresh reminder for India’s unparalleled water generosity which has engendered unending trouble for India. 

Way Forward:

•  There is a need to make treaty more transparent by using state-of-art information communication technology tools.

• To remove mistrust on data exchange, install satellite based real-time telemetry system in IHK Kashmir at a minimum 100 locations for monitoring water quality and quantity.

• There is a need to setup an independent office of Indus Water Commission(IWC) comprising neutral experts outside of South Asian region, having unblemished record and integrity. This may also include experts from various international agencies such as the World Bank, the UNEP and the EU, etc. This independent commission of experts shall work directly under the UN to monitor and promote sustainable development in Kashmir and HP.

• The Independent IWC will also arrange real time data of minor, major tributaries and at all head-works, dams, etc. by website including three dimensional models of dams, three-dimensional model to represent of geometric data of dams (flood storage+ Run of River Hydropower projects) for clarity for the global community.

• It was agreed that environmental threats do not respect national borders. During last three decades, the watershed in IHK is badly degraded. To rehabilitate watershed in IHK and Himachal Pradesh (HP), both countries are to take initiative for joint watershed management in these two states.

• To rehabilitate watershed in IHK and HP, an environmental impact assessment is the best instrument to assess the possible negative impact that a proposed project may have on the indigenous environment, together with water flow in rivers .The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe's Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context provides the best legal framework for Transboundary EIA for sustainable flow in Indus Rivers System, so that India should share TEIA before physical execution of any project including hydropower.

• Glaciers are important and major source of Indus Rivers System. To preserve these glaciers, there is immediate need to declare all Himalayan Glaciers as “Protected Area” including immediate demilitarization from Siachen to preserve this second longest glacier of planet to fall in the watershed of the Indus River.


As per the International Court of Justice the treaty may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances. Pakistan’s insisting on rights without responsibilities and its use of state reared terrorist groups can be invoked by India, under Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, as constituting reasonable grounds for withdrawal from the Indus treaty. Pakistan’s repeatedly invoking dispute resolution provision of the treaty and bringing international intercession is sending a wrong message to India.

If Pakistan wishes to preserve the Indus treaty, despite its diminishing returns for India, it will have to strike a balance between its right to keep utilizing the bulk of the river system’s waters and a corresponding obligation (enshrined in international law) not to cause “palpable harm” to its co- riparian state by exporting terror.


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