The Big Picture – Indus Water Treaty: Can it become the Handle?

  • October 11, 2016
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The Big Picture- RSTV
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Indus Water Treaty: Can it become the Handle?


TOPIC: General Studies 2

  • India and its neighbourhood- relations.
  • Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests


Brief of Indus Water Treaty

The Indus water treaty divided the use of rivers and canals between two countries. Pakistan obtained exclusive rights for the three western rivers- Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. India retained rights for three eastern rivers- Ravi, Beas and Satluj.




The confrontation between India and Pakistan following the attack at Uri army base has resulted in various options being discussed as far as India is concerned. While there are people who want instant retaliation, for others the diplomatic option is better. The spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs made a statement which raised the issue of Indus water treaty. The statement hinted that the Indus water treaty can be used as an option to teach Pakistan a lesson.

The genesis of the treaty lies in Pakistan’s absolute fear which is part genuine, part propaganda. It was in fear that if India builds dams on the rivers, Pakistan would be starved of water. Thus, in 1960, India entered into a treaty mediated by the World Bank in order to give Pakistan an assurance that it need not fear anything from India for water. This was done inspite of knowing the fact that this treaty was more beneficial to Pakistan as the western rivers have more water than the eastern rivers. When the treaty gave western rivers to India, India did not had any access to its waters except for only non-consumptive purposes. With this treaty, India hoped that Pakistan will feel more secure and therefore be less hostile towards India. However, this has never been realised.

In India thus, there has been a feeling in the significant sections of public opinion, who know about the treaty, that it has not served its purpose and has been far too generous. In J&K, the treaty is very unpopular as people feel that they have been riddled out of their fair share of water. Instead of using the river water that flows through their state, they have to rely on water which flow majorly through Punjab and Haryana.

The treaty has been so far upheld because India never raised it in case of any hostile bilateral relations between two nations. Also, India takes its treaties seriously. After 1972, India did not want third party mediation since the dispute mechanism clauses of the treaty provided that ultimately there will be representatives assigned by World Bank. And because of India’s such goodwill gesture, Pakistan has taken undue advantage of it and objected every project that India has tried to be built on western rivers even if they are for non-consumptive purposes.

What is creating fear in Pakistan now?

Himalayan rivers carry lot of silt. At present, Pakistan’s main dam is Mangla dam. 30% of dam is silted and thereafter there is no place for storage. Kalabagh dam was planned between Sindh and Punjab border but stuck in interstate disputes. Thus, there are looming water crisis. Adding to the fire, the jihadis are spreading rumours that India has some kind of tap which they will shut and they all will be ruined because of non-availability of water. Thus, it is a measure to whip up the sentiments and create sense of fear and have succeeded to some extent.

Pakistan gets 135 million acre (ma) water whereas it does not have any plans to use not more than 105 ma. About 40 ma of water goes to sea in Pakistan. As against this, Punjab and Haryana need about 5-10 ma more water. So, India can renegotiate to divert from western to eastern rivers to solve the problems. But this problem has to be handled diplomatically and not by terminating a treaty. India has never mentioned Indus treaty as a response matter to any crisis. The idea that it can be used as a response measure to such a crisis is yet to be evaluated. Terminating a treaty does not hold much significance as there are no dams on Indus, Chenab or Jhelum to stop the water flow. Building dams and other reservoirs takes years to construct and operate. Hence, the water will anyway flow to Pakistan. But, as a long term measure, India has to renegotiate the treaty with fresh terms, where India gets some access to western river waters.

Why has India not utilised western river waters?

Because, every time India started a project, the Pakistanis objected and put a stop to it. The dispute mechanism of the treaty was bizarre. It included third party would be chief justice of USA Supreme Court, Lord chief justice of UK as they held great importance during those times. Now that there is no third party involvement, India had to solve all the issues bilaterally. Hence, India could not use the water at all, even for non-consumptive purposes which the treaty provided. If India wants, it had to satisfy the Pakistanis, but they were never satisfied despite of endless rounds of discussion between Indus water commissioners. (Recent disputes over Baglihar and Kishenganga where Pakistan objected towards it.)

Should the Indus Treaty be re-considered?

Pakistan has mismanaged its waters and despite all that, the treaty has been upheld by India. Still Pakistan accuses that India has been dubious on waters. But, if Indus Water treaty is being discussed as a response mechanism to Uri attack, it has to be part of well-thought out policy and strategy. It can’t be a kneejerk reaction and pandering to public opinion.

India is entitled to respond to the options in the background of the attacks and India does have some kind of strategic advantage with respect to Indus water treaty. But, India would not compromise on the quality and quantity of water as it is a functioning democracy with democratic and human ideals. However, this doesn’t close the option of re-negotiating the treaty. J&K has had grievances and they were not addressed adequately, thus, it might be an opportunity to do it. But, it might open the Pandora’s box. But, last time World Bank mediated, but these times certainly don’t present the platform where anything can be negotiated with Pakistan.

In 1960, it was a very simple and well-thought treaty. Pakistan received 80% of the water. It was the time when the natural flow teri dominated the field where the lower riparian had an upper hand. After 55 years, the treaty has created problem in Indian essence. India’s dependence on eastern rivers has not been sufficient to meet all requirements.

Conclusion- Will there be Indus treaty abrogation?

Most likely not. This is the government’s way of telling Pakistan that it is tired of its proxy wars. Now, the ‘water’ has crossed its limit and it should not expect any sympathies.

Anyway, the mention of Indus water treaty was not the suo motu statement of MEA spokesperson but was responding to a question.

All treaties are based on set of objectives which require goodwill and good faith. Treaties have been abrogated by the countries in the past even for the treaties with timeline. In contrast, the Indus water treaty does not even provide specific time frame.

If India thinks that Pakistan is an enemy state and if Pakistan’s actions over last 56 years have demonstrated it conclusively, then this can be part of package which teaches Pakistan a lesson on how India is capable of retaliating in manner it wants.

Connecting the dots:

  • Water is lifeline of any nation. If India brings up Indus water treaty, Pakistan will feel threatened and this is what India aims at. Will this strategy be successful to tell Pakistan to mend its ways? Explain.


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Securing the Indus Treaty

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