The Politics of Indo-Pak Water-Sharing: A Review of the Indus Water Treaty

The Politics of Indo-Pak Water-Sharing: A Review of the Indus Water Treaty

Politics | Sep 14, 2018 / by Rahul Das
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The Indus Water Treaty, signed in Karachi on September 19th, 1960, has been hailed as an exemplary model of conflict resolution in international politics. The treaty provides a framework for sharing the waters of the River Indus and its tributaries, namely Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas, between India and Pakistan. While the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have been rather capricious since the Partition of 1947, the treaty has endured the three wars that took place between the two parties in the years that followed, indicating the potential for cooperation despite escalated tensions and deteriorating relations.  The bilateral talks on the Indus Water Treaty, conducted recently after Imran Khan secured the office of Prime Minister of Pakistan, reaffirm the positive intent of both parties to commit to the instrument, despite its shaky foundations that have been challenged ever since it was signed by both sides.

With the recently concluded elections in Pakistan, proponents of the arrangement will continue to hope that the governments of both states settle their differences through the existing mechanisms. Continued faith from both parties in the Indus Water Treaty will ensure that there is no deterioration in bilateral relations due to confrontational policies related to water-sharing, which is incredibly important to pursue the objective of regional stability.

Historical Context

The Partition of 1947 created borders that cut through the Indus river system which disrupted well-established irrigation networks. Eight months after Pakistan's independence, East Punjab (in India) had obstructed the flow of water into Pakistani canals on April 1st, 1948, creating an atmosphere of suspicion. The newly-formed state of Pakistan did not wish to rely on Indian benevolence. Prime Minister Nehru's criticism of the unilateral action of the state of East Punjab did little to build confidence. After essential negotiations, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now known as the World Bank) brokered the Indus Water Treaty between the two parties. According to the treaty, the three western rivers (Chenab, Jhelum, and the Indus) were allocated to Pakistan and the three eastern rivers (the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej) were allocated to India. India was not permitted to build storages on the rivers allocated to Pakistan, excluding certain conditions like the generation of hydro-electric power and irrigation use as mentioned in the treaty. Provisions regarding the resolution of disputes, exchange of data on project operations and periodic meetings between the parties through the established institutions like the permanent Indus Commission were also present. As an outcome of the treaty, 80% of the water fell within Pakistan's control and the remaining 20%, within India's, which was considered an unfair but necessary settlement by both sides.

Indo-Pak Differences with the Treaty in Practice

The primary concern of the government is that India could exercise control and reduce water flows to Pakistan. Pakistan has stalled several proposed Indian projects on the Western rivers, referring to the technicalities of the Indus Water Treaty. The engineering technicalities mentioned in the treaty present a challenge to any proposed plan of building a storage on the western rivers by India. Furthermore, the need for exchange of information between parties relating to projects has allowed Pakistan to point out Indian plans that it considers violations of the treaty. Emerging out of a security-oriented interest, Pakistani objection to projects like Tulbul, Baglihar, and Kishenganga have been notable differences between the parties. The Tulbul Project was conceived in the early 1980s as a barrage at the mouth of Wular Lake. The Wular Lake lies in the Indian district of Bandipora in Jammu and Kashmir but it is fed by the Jhelum river. Pakistan’s objection to the project in 1987 led to India discontinuing work on the project. The Kishenganga dam in Jammu and Kashmir was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in May 2018, after the project which began in 2007 was halted by the International Court of Arbitration as a result of Pakistan’s opposition. The aim of the project was to divert water from the Kishenganga river (known as Neelum in Pakistan) to a power plant in the Jhelum basin to generate hydropower and use the diverted water for irrigation purposes. It was only after the judgement of the Court, which went in favour of India, that the project was completed. The arbitration clause of the treaty was invoked in the case of Baglihar. The treaty has a provision for the appointment of a Neutral Expert in the case that a difference emerges between the parties. The judgement of the Neutral Expert on the difference is considered final and binding unless the expert identifies the issue as a ‘dispute’ in which case, it is referred to a Court of Arbitration. The Baglihar project was a run-of-the-river project in the Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir on the river Chenab. Construction on the project began in 1999 and Pakistan raised six objections based on the design parameters of the project. The World Bank in 2005 appointed Professor Raymond Lafitte as a neutral expert, who delivered his verdict in February 2007. He upheld certain objections by Pakistan but recognized India’s right to construct the dam as long as it was in accordance with the verdict and the Indus Water Treaty. While it highlighted the differences between the parties, the issue was settled using the arbitration mechanisms provided for by the Indus Water Treaty, providing for a favoured outcome. In the case of the Salal Hydroelectric Project on the river Chenab, prolonged discussions were held by the Indus Water Commission established by the treaty. Another run-of-the-river project in the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir, construction for the project began in 1970 after the Indian and Pakistani government addressed the questions associated with the project and changes were made to meet the interests of both parties. This showcased the potential for cooperation between the parties, facilitated by the bilateral water-sharing arrangement.

Political Implications of the Treaty

The treaty came into the spotlight in September 2016, following the Uri attacks. The suspension of the meeting of the Indus Water Commission in 2016 by India, followed by calls for abrogation, was an alarming prospect for the water-sharing arrangement which is indispensable for both parties. Prime Minister Modi's statement that "blood and water cannot flow together" accurately represented the sentiment of the Indian people. Continued terrorist activity from Pakistani territories did little to improve the historically strained Indo-Pak relations. The possibility of using the Indus Water Treaty as a political tool to mount pressure on Pakistan seemed like an appealing idea. However, abrogation was and will continue to be an idea that will be damaging to the interest of both states. While the revision of the treaty always remains on the negotiating table, the best course of action for both states would be to maintain the status quo. The principles of international law encourage that the agreement is kept. Furthermore, an Indian withdrawal from the arrangement at any time will raise questions regarding its commitment to other water-sharing arrangements in the region. It would be reasonable for states like China and Nepal, which have water-sharing arrangements with India, to assume that a similar practice will be the result of a threat to the Indian interest. Both states owe a debt to the treaty for the existing hydropower and irrigation infrastructure in the Indus river basin. Differences will continue to arise between the parties but as long as they are resolved through the arbitration mechanisms present within the scope of the agreement, the hope for regional stability remains.


The two-day meeting of the Indus Water Commission held in Lahore on August 29-30 recently was the first bilateral engagement between India and Pakistan, following Imran Khan's victory. India and Pakistan mutually agreed to undertake mandated tours on both sides of the Indus basin for the review of hydroelectric projects like Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai in Jammu and Kashmir and discussed the strengthening of the Permanent Indus Water Commission. The engagement was promising and the change in leadership of Pakistan represents an opportunity for the treaty to be implemented in good faith between the two parties. A positive and just approach from Pakistan in reviewing the proposals for projects on western rivers coupled with an Indian respect for the limitations provided for within the treaty would be beneficial for both parties. To what extent and, more importantly, when that will be achievable becomes difficult to predict. However, the significance of the treaty on Indo-Pak relations cannot be overlooked. The politics of water-sharing between India and Pakistan is rather complicated but the surviving Indus Water Treaty, despite its drawbacks, provides an opportunity for both states to address their differences in harmony.



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Parsai, G. (2013, December 21). ICA gives go ahead to Kishenganga project. The Hindu. Retrieved from

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Header Courtesy: The Free Press Journal

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Written By Rahul Das

Second-year undergraduate, pursuing History and International Relations from Ashoka University.

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