Indus Waters Treaty 1960: An Indian Perspective

Indus River

The Indus Waters Treaty is regarded internationally to be a successful instance of conflict-resolution between two countries that have otherwise been locked in mutual antagonism. That favorable view of the Treaty is by and large shared in India as well as in Pakistan, but there is a measure of dissatisfaction in both countries regarding matters of water-allocation in the Treaty. Furthermore, the operation of the Treaty has been characterized by a series of differences. Should we regard it as a success or a failure?

The Treaty has settled the water-sharing dispute, and it has managed to survive four wars. In that sense it must be regarded as a success. Dividing the river system into two segments was perhaps not the best thing to do; the better course might have been for the two countries jointly to manage the entire system in an integrated and holistic manner. However, given the circumstances of Partition and the difficult relationship between the two newly formed countries, it would have been naïve to expect that such a joint, integrated, cooperative approach would work. If the best course is unavailable, then we have to settle for the second best – that is what the Treaty represents. The Treaty is essentially a partitioning agreement, not a grand instrument of inter-country cooperation. The land was partitioned in 1947, and the waters were partitioned in 1960.

Technical differences over projects

The water-sharing has been settled, but differences have continued to arise about certain design and engineering features of Indian projects on the western rivers. The Treaty allows India limited use of the waters of those rivers, but the use is subject to fairly stringent technical conditions and stipulations to safeguard Pakistan’s interests. Thus, the Treaty is both permissive and restrictive toward Indian projects – particularly big projects – on the western rivers. India tries to use the permissive provisions to the fullest, whereas Pakistan tries to apply the restrictive provisions stringently. The two countries are thus pulling in two opposite directions. This leads to a permanent tug of war in the Indus Commission. As the lower riparian on the Indus system, Pakistan tends to look with anxious eyes at any attempts by India to build structures on the western rivers that may enable India either to reduce water flows or to release stored waters and cause floods. Pakistan’s objections are thus partly water-related and partly security-related. The Indian position is that the security fears are misconceived because India cannot flood Pakistan without flooding itself first; that its capacity to reduce flows to Pakistan is very limited; and that the record of the last half-century gives no basis for any such apprehensions.

An important political dimension to these differences is that the projects are – or will be – located in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan can hardly be enthusiastic about facilitating Indian projects in what it regards as disputed territory.

Where do we go from here?

Abrogation of the Treaty, occasionally advocated by some, does not merit serious discussion. Should there be a renegotiation of the Treaty, as is often urged in both countries? It is difficult to envisage an outcome that would be better than before, from the points of view of both countries. Unfortunately, water-sharing is a zero-sum game: One side cannot increase its share without diminishing that of the other. The best course would perhaps be to leave things as they are and hope that, with improving political relations, a more reasonable and constructive spirit on both sides toward the operation of the Treaty will prevail in the future.

Until a few years ago, while there were arguments about certain Indian projects on the western rivers and their conformity to the provisions of the Indus Treaty, no one in Pakistan talked about water as being a major issue between their country and India. From early 2010 onwards, Pakistan has been projecting water as being a major issue between the two countries, indeed as a new “core issue” that is as important as Kashmir, if not more so.

Why has it decided to do so? We can only guess. Focusing public attention on the water issue may act as a powerful mobilizing factor and rally the people as a whole behind the government and/or the army. The government of Pakistan perhaps hopes to distract attention from bitter inter-provincial water-sharing disputes within its own country. Raising water as a new core issue may also be a counter move in response to the focus that India has been maintaining on terrorism.

The view seems to be widely held that if Pakistan faces a present or imminent water crisis, India is an important factor in that development. This could have a serious impact on India-Pakistan relations, even at the people-to-people level.

Some Pakistani concerns

Leaving aside popular misconceptions in Pakistan, let us take note of some of the concerns expressed in Track II meetings by thoughtful, well-informed members of Pakistani civil society and academia, including those who want good relations with India.

  • Popular perceptions or misperceptions about the diversion of water by India seem to receive unwitting corroboration in reported findings by Pakistani scholars of a trend of reduction in the flows in the western rivers. The tendency is to assume that the upper riparian must be responsible for that reduction. The only answer to this is to institute a joint study by experts from both countries to determine whether in fact flows in the western rivers have diminished, and if so, to identify the factors responsible.
  • Other popular beliefs in Pakistan are: that the Indus Waters Treaty never envisaged the construction of a large number of major projects by India on the western rivers; that what was intended to be a minor concession has been stretched by India unduly; and that because of this stretching, every Indian project on the western rivers is in violation of the Treaty. These accusations arise from a misreading of the Treaty, which clearly envisages major Indian projects on the western rivers, as documented by the massive annexes to the Treaty. So long as India conforms to the stringent restrictive provisions of the Treaty, it cannot be charged with stretching or violating the Treaty.
  • A third point on which much anxiety is expressed is the cumulative impact of a large number of projects on the western rivers. India might argue that if each project conforms to the Treaty, there can be no such thing as the “cumulative impact” of a large number of projects. However, Pakistani apprehensions on this score cannot be lightly dismissed. Many in India have been worried about the cumulative impact of a large number of hydroelectric projects on the Ganges River, and studies have been commissioned to address the issue. What applies to the Ganges applies equally to the Indus system. The issue needs to be carefully considered. Here again, a joint study by experts from both countries seems desirable.
  • In recent years, pleas have been made for a holistic, integrated management of the entire system, joint watershed management, etc. These are unexceptionable ideas, but a completely different “holistic” Treaty will have to wait for better times. Current concerns such as environmental impacts, minimum or ecological flows, etc., are as applicable to the Indus system as to other systems, and demands for them should not be brushed aside merely because the Indus Treaty did not foresee them. Presumably, environmental impact assessments are being made for each of the hydroelectric projects that are being planned on the western rivers. Environmental impacts do not stop at the border; a project on the Indian side can have impacts across the border, and a project on the Pakistani side – for instance the Neelum Jhelum hydroelectric project that Pakistan is planning – may have impacts on the Indian side of the border.


Conclusion: The Indus Waters Treaty in an age of climate change

Global climate change and its possible impact on water availability in the Indus river system are matters of vital concern, and the two countries must begin immediately to work together on these. There has already been a measure of cooperation between them during international negotiations on climate change, but this must go beyond the limited issue of emission reductions. This cannot be brought within the ambit of the Indus Waters Treaty but must be a separate exercise.

Summing up, agreed solutions can be found for the differences that have arisen during the course of operation of the Treaty, but they become difficult because of fluctuating political relations between the two countries. An improvement in those relations and the harmonious operation of the Treaty are interrelated, and each will facilitate the other. The newer emerging concerns that were not foreseen in 1960 – and in particular climate change and its impact on water resources – call for inter-country cooperation beyond the Treaty.