Analysis: India-Pakistan water relations

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The recent news with respect to the water management relations between India and Pakistan is the Prime Ministers statement during the rally for Haryana Assembly Elections.

The Prime Minister, Mr.NarendraModi announced that the water from the Indus river which belonged to the farmers of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan will now be utilized 100% by India and Pakistan will no longer get to use the water of its share granted under the Indus Waters Treaty.

The PM justifies this initiative by explaining that the voluminous rivers, the Indus and its western tributaries, the Jhelum and Chenab went to Pakistan while India got the less voluminous eastern tributaries Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi so unless India starts utilisation of its share in the western tributaries,it is clearly an unfair division of the water.

History of water relations:

The water relations between the two countries have been governed by the Indus Water Treaty since the 1960 when the same was brokered by the World Bank. The Treaty is concerned with the use of the water in the Indus River system.

The Indus River originates in China and flows through the disputed region of Kashmir to Pakistan and drains into the Arabian Sea. It has 5 major tributaries on the eastern Punjab plain namely the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers.

This drainage system has always been used for irrigation. The modern irrigation system was established around the 1850 during the British era when canal systems were constructed. But, post partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the headwork of the rivers were in India and the canals were in the Pakistan region. The following initiatives were taken to organise a proper water distribution system:

  • SHORT-TERM STANDSTILL AGREEMENT OF 1947 was an agreement where both countries did not interfere with the water sources of the other but in 1948, India began to withhold water from Pakistan.
  • Thus, the INTER-DOMINION ACCORD OF MAY 4, 1948 was formed under which India had to provide water to Pakistan in exchange of annual payments.
  • Since both the countries were not compromising, at the suggestion of David Lilinthal, former head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the countries began negotiating for an agreement in 1951 and involved the World Bank for financial support.
  • THE INDUS WATERS TREATY was finally formed in 1960 between Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan because of the contributions of Eugene Black, the then president of the World Bank.

Current water sharing between the countries.

Since the formation of the treaty, numerous disputes have been peacefully resolved but in the past few years, the issue of underutilisation of its share of water by India has been brought up time and again.

In 2016, after the Uri Attack, a meeting was conducted with the Prime Minister as the chair which was attended by the National Security Advisor AjitDoval and then foreign secretary S Jaishankar, who is the current external affairs minister. It was decided that though India will not renege the treaty, certain measures will be taken to ensure full utilisation of the Indus Water.

In 2017, the treaty was significantly challenged when the Kishanganga dam was built in Kashmir and the Ratle hydroelectric power station was being constructed on the Chenab River in between on-going negotiations with the world bank to decide whether the designs of those projects were violative of the said treaty.

International law: Treaty between India and Pakistan

As mentioned above, the water relations between the two countries are governed by the Indus water treaty. This treaty was formed in 1960 after 9 years of negotiations between the two countries and the World Bank.The following were the provisions of the treaty:

  • Allocation of waters from the western rivers the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab to Pakistan. This allowed provision of water to Pakistan from rivers which were assigned to India only for exclusive use.
  • Specified domestic, non-consumptive and agricultural use of waters from the western rivers was permitted to India.
  • Allocation of waters from the eastern rivers the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej to India.
  • India also has unrestricted right to generate hydroelectricity through the run of the river projects on the western rivers.
  • Provisions for funding and building of dams, link canals, barrages and tube wells.

Following are some dams built under the treaty-

  1. Tarbela Dam on the Indus River.
  2. Mangla Dam on the Jhelum River.
  3. Financing was done by the member countries of the World Bank.
  4. There was a provision for creation of a Permanent Indus Commission, which had one commissioner from each country for communication and dispute resolution.

Implications of current statement:

The current statement made by the Prime Minister had obvious political reasoning to it since it is bound to generate a positive voting response towards BJP from the agricultural sector of Haryana which includes 80% of the state’s population.

Even though in India, there will most definitely be a positive response in the name of resource-utilisation and development; this will affect the India-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan will not appreciate the reduction in their water supply as around 90% of Pakistan’s agriculture is depended on the water supplied through the Indus water system.

Further, since the rivers do not originate in Pakistan but in India and China, the former always has a threat of famine and drought and any tampering with the current water systems might increase the threat of the same.


The two neighbouring nations have repeatedly accused each other of violating the terms of the treaty and these arguments have created an urgency to do something about it otherwise, the next major was may be because of the Water crises. The long term risk of conflict over water may involve serious protests by the citizens as well as acts of terrorism.

The poor management of water resources and the major water crises have become a serious concern for countries across the globe. Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia has stated that the violation of this treaty may lead to the two nuclear-armed rivals becoming enmeshed in increasing tensions. This implies major security issues for the South Asian region and the world as a whole.

Pervaiz Amir, a regional expert for the Stockholm-based Global Water Partnership pointed out the ripple effect due to south Asian water crises which is evident in the cities of Karachi and India’s capital, New Delhi. “First it is poverty that will increase. In the southern areas of Pakistan, extremism and terrorism will increase.”


The provisions of the treaty allow India to block the water flowing to Pakistan from the western rivers to a certain extent, which is also a statement of India’s commitment to the international community.

Thus, the possible solutions involve construction of dams on the western rivers to meet electricity and irrigation requirements or the completion of Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan which can consume 30 lakh acre-feet water which is a part of India’s share.

Therefore, water disputes are a serious issue and steps to ensure resolution should be taken carefully keeping in mind the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty.

This article is brought to you in collaboration with Arunima Sharma from School of Law, Christ University, Banglore.

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