External Affairs

Standing By the Indus Water Treaty Is in India's Best Interests

Linking water to security might suit the interests of hawks in India and Pakistan, but India, aspiring for a seat in the UNSC, should safeguard rather than violate bilateral treaties.

The Indus Water Treaty is widely and correctly cited as a success story for the transboundary sharing of river waters. Credit: Reuters

The Indus Water Treaty is widely and correctly cited as a success story for the transboundary sharing of river waters. Credit: Reuters

The partition of the Indian subcontinent gave birth to a long history of conflict between India and Pakistan. The partition did not consider the implications of dividing the Indus basin asymmetrically across the geographical boundaries of the two countries. Although Sir Cyril Radcliffe and David Lilienthal recommended some sort of joint control and management of the Indus waters, the proposal was rejected by both India and Pakistan.

It was in 1948, soon after partition, that India asserted its geographic advantage in controlling the water for the first time. This led to a series of water sharing negotiations that ultimately culminated into the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) brokered by the World Bank. Since then, there is a deep suspicion in Pakistan that India may repeat the tactic in the event of any hostility between the two nations. This suspicion may have been brought to the surface recently when, for the first time post-IWT, India intended to assert her upstream privilege on water control. Being the lower riparian, Pakistan’s objection to every hydropower project in Jammu and Kashmir during the last the decades, though provided for under the treaty, partly stems from this anxiety and insecurity.

Though not based on any international water law but governed by political compromise with a focus on engineering solutions, the IWT is widely and correctly cited as a success story for the transboundary sharing of river waters. It has survived despite three wars, several skirmishes, cold relations and frequent military mobilisations during the last 56 years of hostility between the two countries. The treaty involved the division of the Indus river system comprising of three eastern rivers (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) and three western rivers – (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). The treaty gave India exclusive rights to the three eastern rivers up to the point where they enter Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan was given exclusive rights to the western rivers.

Safeguarding the treaty

In spite of its positional advantage, India has in the past discounted water as a military tool, even in times of war. In fact, India lacks the kind of hydrologic infrastructure on western rivers essential for any adventurous maneuvering of waters in the eventuality of any hostility with Pakistan. India has always dealt with security and water issues separately with Pakistan. However, a section of the establishment in Pakistan looks at water sharing with India through the prism of Kashmir. Despite domestic pressures to use the IWT for settling scores with Pakistan, India, as a regional leader, needs to safeguard larger South Asian regional security by loudly and clearly reiterating her commitment to meet the obligations of the IWT in letter and spirit.

The present attempts to link security concerns to the sharing of waters would further complicate relations with Pakistan and might set off a spiral of discontent and mistrust between the two warring countries. Rejecting this type of dogma is also important for safeguarding India’s political and diplomatic interests with other co-riparian states: China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

India has longstanding water disputes with her other neighbours on the sharing of river waters. Linking water to security might suit the interests of hawks in the two countries, but India, an emerging power aspiring for a seat in the UN Security Council, should worry about its reputation as a responsible country that safeguards rather than violates bilateral treaties. Notwithstanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dismissal of any prospect of waging a “water war” with Pakistan on bilateral issues, the sabre rattling continues unabated in the media. Abrogation of the IWT is not in the interest of India, as India is wary of the China factor. India would be averse to the prospect of Pakistan, along with China and Afghanistan, controlling about 14% of the basin, on the other side of the table negotiating a new treaty for sharing of the Indus waters.

Those who talk of diverting Indus waters are ignorant of the fact that it would require much larger scale storage dams and a diversion canal network – things that figure nowhere in India’s existing water plans. Similarly, any attempt to stop waters to Pakistan would mean flooding areas in Indian Kashmir, to disastrous consequences. Apart from the international obligation and credibility, there is considerable risk attached to building dams and storage facilities that do not abide by the treaty or are a contravention of environmental guidelines.

The key aspect of the treaty was setting up  the mechanism to adjudicate future disputes over the allocation of water through structured negotiations, which has worked very well till date. Recently, divergent national views have emerged about the interpretation of different clauses of the treaty. A minority in both the countries is even asking for revisiting the treaty on political considerations and perceived injustice. However, a majority of experts in both countries acknowledge that there are good reasons to supplement and expand the treaty using scientific knowledge to address issues that have emerged post-IWT like climate change, environmental flows, watershed management and groundwater overexploitation. This would mean that the implementation of the treaty and dispute resolution mechanism is modernised for promoting peaceful relations between the two countries.

A few concerns

There is a large group of people in both countries who believe that the division of waters under the treaty was unfair, but the unfairness alleged in one country is the exact opposite of that alleged in the other. The IWT raises the ire of many within India for its policymakers agreeing to indefinitely reserve 80% of the total waters of the Indus for Pakistan. Pakistan’s geography makes it completely dependent upon the Indus basin for water for agricultural, industrial, municipal and other uses. If Pakistan was deprived of the water from the western Indus rivers, the whole of Pakistan would become a desert. We have to keep in mind that Pakistan has only one river – the Indus. Besides the Indus, India has the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery, Mahanadi and various coastal rivers. India’s per capita water availability is 1,580 cubic metres against the Pakistan’s 1,030 cubic metres. Both countries are overexploiting groundwater resources to meet the deficit in supply and keep blaming each other for the lack of policy guidelines and subsidised regimes responsible for the rapidly depleting transboundary aquifer.

There is a sense of grievance in Jammu and Kashmir that the treaty has deprived the state of an important resource, making it difficult for the state to derive any major benefits from the rivers that flow through it but stand allocated to Pakistan under the IWT without any consultation with the people of Kashmir. The state assembly has even passed a resolution asking New Delhi to reconsider the IWT so as to safeguard the interests of the state. In my opinion, the claims that the treaty is “very unfair” and the demands for its reconsideration and compensation on account of the restrictions on water use in Jammu and Kashmir lack a sound argument. The complaint of some people in the state that the IWT restricts the construction of dams that would have multiplied the generation of hydropower in the state is not justified in light of the fact that the state has been able to harness just less than 4% of the identified run-of-the-river hydropower potential provided under the treaty in the state sector. The large dam projects have serious environmental costs that cannot be overlooked by the people of the mountainous and disaster-prone state. Particularly, the high seismicity of the region makes the large dam projects technically impractical and would increase the risk of earthquakes.

Scrapping or even reconsidering the treaty, in my opinion, is not a solution to address the grievances of Jammu and Kashmir. There is no doubt that successive governments in Kashmir have failed to harness the hydropower potential of the Indus for its economic development, primarily due to the lack of the financial resources required for setting up the hydropower projects. The governments in Delhi have been conservative in lending a helping hand for supporting the hydropower infrastructure in the state, despite several mega economic packages mostly for fringe development. The state’s political leadership, across the spectrum, needs to convince Delhi about the wisdom and need for an economic package specific to hydropower development on the western rivers. The state needs to come out of this “grievance syndrome” and develop a strategy for mobilising the finances required for harnessing its hydropower potential by strictly adhering to the provisions of the treaty while developing a run-of-the river project. People also complain that for every project, a clearance from Pakistan needs to be sought and despite the fulfillment of all formalities, objections from the other side never end.

Pakistani leaders are increasingly expressing their concern over the Indus water dispute, compounded by the traditional rivalry against India over Kashmir. Water sharing with India has become one of the cornerstones of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The dominant perception in Pakistan mistakenly shares the view that its rights to the Indus river are undermined by Indian “violations” of the IWT, holding India responsible for its water woes. India has nothing to do with the Pakistan’s water problems that mainly arise from inefficient water use and allegations of inequitable distribution of water between various provinces. Pakistan needs to look inward to address its water issues. Similarly, the reduced flow of river waters into Pakistan are not the result of any violation of the IWT by India but are primarily due to the depleting snow and glacier cover in the upper Indus basin.

Pakistan has always been apprehensive that the development of hydropower infrastructure upstream would give India a measure of control over the rivers allocated to Pakistan under the treaty, enabling India either to reduce or delay water flows to Pakistan or to release stored waters and cause floods. Pakistan quite often quotes, as an example, the episode over the filling up of the Baghliar reservoir by India and the alleged delayed release of water, affecting the irrigation downstream at a critical time. This has been cited as an instance of India’s capability to maneuver waters as and when all the pipeline cascade of hydropower projects in the Chenab Valley become operational. The concerns of Pakistan regarding the lack of prompt data sharing and transparency about the ongoing and planned hydropower projects by India needs to be looked into, as the timely provision of such information is essential to remove any doubts about these run-of-the-river plants.


Harnessing the untapped hydropower potential of the western rivers, as provided for under the treaty, is a legitimate strategy being planned and pursued by India without impacting Pakistan’s water use. Constructing strictly run-of-the-river projects on the western rivers, which it is permitted to do, India has been adhering to the provisions of the IWT. The disputes over the projects were a manifestation of the different interpretations the two countries’ water experts have of the treaty. India has been slow in developing hydropower on western rivers during the last 56 years, harnessing just about 12% of the identified 20,000 MW hydropower potential.

India’s recent expression of interest in harnessing the full hydropower potential would require massive financing. India optimally harnessing the identified potential of the western rivers for energy generation hall not only provide much needed energy security, but also address the genuine grievances of the people of Jammu and Kashmir on using Indus waters for their economic development. If relations between India and Pakistan were normal, the two countries could invoke article VII of the treaty on cooperation for harnessing the hydropower potential of the western rivers under a joint venture. But given the tense relations between the two countries, this will probably continue to be wishful thinking. In light of the fragile ecology and disaster vulnerability of Jammu and Kashmir, India should strictly adhere to the environmental guidelines governing the setting up of power infrastructure in the mountainous Himalayas. In the aftermath of the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, environmentalists and policymakers have started rethinking the feasibility of big dam projects in the region.

India is well under the storage capacities set aside by the IWT for agricultural, power, flood storage and incidental usage. However, there is not much potential for the optimal utilisation of allocated water on western rivers by expanding irrigation to arable lands in the mountainous state of Jammu and Kashmir. Actual utilisation is less than the entitlement as per the treaty. The reason for this is the massive land system changes witnessed in Kashmir during the last 40 years from water intensive paddy cultivation to the rain-fed horticulture driven primarily by economic reasons. Horticulture, which is a back of Kashmir’s economy, gives five or six times more returns per unit area than paddy cultivation.

India’s renewed interest and pursuit in contentious issues like the Wular barrage, also named as Tulbul navigation project, needs a fresh technical evaluation regarding its usefulness to Jammu and Kashmir, especially in light of the role of Wular in the inundation of Srinagar city during the 2014 Kashmir floods. Wular has tremendous importance in the hydrography of Kashmir. Due to the high sedimentation influx into the Wular lake from its catchment, its water holding capacity has drastically reduced during the last 50 years, increasing the flood vulnerability of Srinagar and other built up areas upstream.

Promoting cooperation

The IWT was meant to reduce hostilities between India and Pakistan, but the water discourse is now intensely politicised in both countries. In fact, it is now being used by various actors in the two countries to whip up hatred against each other. Due to conflicting interests, hawks in both countries publicly demand scrapping the treaty, without realising the side effects or the rationality of their demand. In India, the hawks have demanded stopping the water release to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the political mobilisation on India “manipulating Indus waters” has the potential to stoke anti-India sentiments among a wide spectrum of society, fuelling discontent that could lead to extremism.

Any discord over sharing of the Indus waters has grave consequences for security and stability in South Asia. Modi’s Kozhikode appeal asking the people of Pakistan to join India in addressing our common concerns demands that India should walk the talk by setting to rest unequivocally any intent to tinker with the IWT. Any loose talk on the IWT raises fear and insecurity among the common masses in Pakistan which needs to be avoided, if India wants to win over the peace-loving constituency in Pakistan.

Despite several divergences, the two nations have convergent concerns about water security, food security, energy security, environmental degradation and climate change. Notwithstanding the persistent reticence among the leadership of the two countries for working together, there is a need for informed diplomacy to deal with all the intricate issues facing the two countries through a sustained track-II dialogue. We need to rebuild cooperation to remove the distrust and synergise common concerns on the sharing of Indus waters – both within the scope of the treaty and outside it – through mutual agreement. It is hoped that the cooperation that builds on existing frameworks over the sharing of waters may also offer informed pathways to confidence and peacebuilding to amicably settle political and other issues between the two countries.

Shakil Ahmad Romshoo is professor and head of the department, earth sciences, at the University of Kashmir