External Affairs

Sixty Years of the Indus Waters Treaty and How It Survived Many a Fraught Moment

Despite criticism, the treaty has lived through three wars, a number of military stand-offs and the rising tide of water nationalism fuelled by friction between Indian and Pakistan.

A little over 60 years ago, on September 19, 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) was signed between India and Pakistan to share waters from the Indus rivers system (IRS).

After years of negotiations between representatives from India and Pakistan, which were mediated by the World Bank, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru went to Karachi, the then capital of Pakistan to sign the Indus Waters Treaty along with the Pakistani head of state, General Ayub Khan. The vice president of the World Bank, W.A.B. Iliff also signed the document.

Nehru hoped that the agreement would bring prosperity to peasants on both sides, and peace, friendship, and goodwill between India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, this did not happen as relations between the two countries remain strained.

Map of the Indus Water Treaty system. Credit: Frontline

The IWT allocates waters from three western flowing rivers – Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab – to Pakistan barring some limited uses for India in Jammu & Kashmir. India was given control of the entire water from the other three rivers – Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. Under the IWT, India is allowed 3.60 Million Acre Feet (MAF) of storage (0.40 MAF on Indus, 1.50 MAF on the Jhelum, and 1.70 MAF on the Chenab). Sector-wise allocation is 2.85 MAF for conservation storage and an additional 0.75 MAF for “flood storage”. In the final reckoning, Pakistan received 80% of the IRS waters while India got 20%.

Despite opposition to the IWT and its criticism since 1960, the IWT has managed to survive even after three wars (1965, 1971 and 1999), a number of military stand-offs (1987, 2001-02, 2008, 2016 and 2019) and several other episodes of political friction between the South Asian nuclear rivals.

In recent years due to widening of the supply-demand gap of water in India and Pakistan, there has been a rise in water nationalism which is further fuelled by the increasing tensions between the two countries. Besides state and civil society actors, Pakistan based militant groups have also raised the issue of IRS waters in their rallies criticising India for robbing what they call Pakistan’s waters.

In March 2010,  Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed in his rallies at Muzaffarabad and Lahore, denounced India’s “theft” of waters through “illegal dams” that could trigger a nuclear war. Banners in his rallies had slogans like “water or war”, “water flows or blood”, “Liberate Kashmir to secure water”, and “No peace with Indian water aggression”.

Also read: Indus Treaty: Why India Cannot Afford to Fight Fire With Water

The growing number of multipurpose hydropower projects on the IRS rivers to effectively manage the available waters and generate electricity has become a cause for tension, as both India and Pakistan contest each other projects. The issue of the Salal dam emerged in 1970 and was resolved by the two countries in 1978.

The second one was over Baglihar dam which they settled in 2007 with the help of World Bank appointed Neutral Expert Professor Raymond Lafitte. More complex than Salal and Baglihar dams is the dispute over Kishanganga Hydro Electricity Project (KHEP). Pakistan took the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration which delivered its final verdict in 2013.

Nevertheless, Pakistan has kept on challenging the construction of the KHEP in Kashmir. To stop this project, Pakistan knocked at the doors of the World Bank in 2016 and again in 2018. In 2016, to stop the ongoing construction work related to KHEP, the Pakistani Army fired 18 shells in Gurez in North Kashmir.  Despite the obstructions from Pakistan, on May 19, 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated three units of the KHEP which were synchronised in March 2018. The main project has the capability to generate around 1712.96 Million Units of electricity per year.

Amidst growing tensions with Pakistan in 2016, for the first time, a question over the IWT was raised by Prime Minister  Narendra Modi. After the attack on the Indian Army’s camp at Uri in J&K in September 2016, in which about 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives, Modi, said, “Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously”.

Soon after, India suspended the annual meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission until terror attacks from groups in Pakistan stopped. However, India attended the Indus commission meeting at Islamabad in March 2017. Subsequently, in 2018, the Indus commissioners held meetings in New Delhi where the two sides held technical discussions on various hydroelectric projects, including Pakal Dul (1000 MW) and Lower Kalnal (48 MW). The two countries also agreed to undertake the IWT’s mandated tours of Indus Commissioners in Indus basin on both sides.

In February 2019, after a suicide attack in Pulwama in the Kashmir Valley in which about 40 CRPF soldiers lost their lives, the Union minister of water resources Nitin Gadkari said that the government of India had decided to stop its share of water from the eastern rivers from flowing into Pakistan. He also said that India could even block Pakistan’s share of the Indus waters. Later he clarified that the decision to curtail Pakistan’s share of water would lead to the abrogation of the IWT and hence needed consideration from the country’s top leadership.

Also read: How Politics Dictated Indus Waters Treaty From First to Last

The IWT does not have a unilateral exit clause. Technically, under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, there are provisions to sever and withdraw from the treaty. However, the provisions cannot be appropriately used to abrogate the IWT. Even the severance of diplomatic and consular relationships between India and Pakistan cannot terminate the IWT. Even if the IWT gets revoked in some way or the other, there are international conventions, rules and principles which secure the water interests of the lower riparian states.

Second, the abrogation of the IWT will send alarm bells ringing in India’s other lower riparian country, Bangladesh which receives about 91% of its waters from the rivers flowing from India. Besides, the growing collaboration between Pakistan and China on security, economy and water projects, primarily on the western flowing rivers of IRS, may lead the Chinese to become much more assertive towards India.

In northeast India, China cannot divert much water from the Brahmaputra as the river becomes wide only after reaching India, mainly in Assam. There have been reports of China building dams over the Sutlej river which flows through Tibet before entering Himachal Pradesh. However, it can stop supplying India with the hydrological data from Nugesha, Yangcun and Nuxia hydrological stations for the Brahmaputra river and from a station at Tsada for the Sutlej river for which India pays around Rs one crore every year. In recent times, China stopped sharing hydrological data on the Brahmaputra with India during the 73 day Doklam standoff in 2017. Such data plays an important role in gauging the amount of water coming from Tibet into Arunachal Pradesh and taking measures to avert any major disaster or floods in the state.

Instead of contemplating abrogation or finding faults with the IWT, India and Pakistan can explore it for mutual benefits. For example, Article VII of the IWT talks about “ future cooperation” and calls for taking up joint studies and engineering works on the rivers to benefit people living in the catchment area of IRS. To address their disputes, Article IX of the IWT talks about mechanisms to settle “questions”, “differences” and “disputes” over hydro infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, at many times the provisions to resolve disputes, have been used to halt the other’s project.

As a document, the treaty may have certain weaknesses, but the larger problem is the fraught relationship between India and Pakistan.

Amit Ranjan is Research Fellow at Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He is also author of the recently published book Contested Waters: India’s Transboundary River Water Disputes in South Asia, Routledge. Views expressed in this article are personal.