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Indus Water Treaty: Review is not an Option

Paper No. 6327                                     Dated 11-Dec-2017

By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

Of late, there are increasing demands from experts and political scientists from Pakistan to revise the almost six decades old Indus Water treaty that had survived despite wars, near wars, acts of terrorism and other conflicts between the two countries.

A detailed paper on the subject was written in this site in paper number 3676 of 19 Feb, 2010 followed by another in paper no. 6174 of 26 September 2016. In these papers it was pointed out that Pakistan being totally dependent on glacial waters, the availability of water from the western rivers allotted to Pakistan are reaching critical proportions. It was also pointed out Pakistan’s own mismanagement of its scarce water resources is responsible for non-availability of water.

Post Uri attack, with India’s response of the PM that “blood and water” do not mix, there appears to be an increasing awareness in Pakistan about the criticality and the vulnerability of its water resources- but the response unfortunately has been only to blame India and not make any introspection on its failure to manage its entitled water resources for optimum use.

Three interesting papers from three different sources- one from a Pakistani Professor teaching in UK, one from a lecturer in History at the University of Bristol who has also written a book on the treaty and finally from a Kashmiri resident in India are being discussed here to get an overall view of the Treaty and its perception from various stake holders.  These are

I.  Dr. Daniel Mustafa, a distinguished Water Resources Expert:

Dr. Mustafa blames Pakistan’s Policy makers for Pakistan’s current woes.  He has made the following points in an interview published by New International Pakistan on April 23, 2017.  The points he made were

1.  In discussing water resources in Pakistan, a major problem in the discourse is that what is in the interest of Punjab is ‘national interest’ while what is in the interest of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh is ‘provincialism’

2. On balance India benefitted more from the Indus Water Treaty.

3.  There is no shred of evidence that India has violated the Indus Water Treaty or that it is stealing Pakistan’s water.  India has to date not violated any of the clauses of Annexure D that was jointly written by Pakistani and Indian Engineers.

4.  The Baglihar Dam dispute was a case of sheer idiocy on part of Pakistan because the country’s future was put on stake in an attempt to fan hatred against India.  It was a stroke of luck for Pakistan that in another dispute on Kishanganga (Neelum) project that Annexure D was declared to be still valid.

5.  On the concerns shared by Pakistanis that India would flood Pakistan, he observed that India would definitely flood Pakistan and it would have to; if it does not, there would be more destruction.  The problem is that in both countries, the dams are not meant for flood control but for hydro electric generation and irrigation and have not enough space to receive flood surges.

II. Daniel Haines- “The Rivers Run Wild” March 8, 2017: (The author has also written a book “Indus divided: India, Pakistan and the River Basin Dispute- 11 Jan 2017.  The points he made in the paper were

1.  The Indus Waters- Dispute highlights the fundamental place that the Indus waters have had in Pakistani and Indian politics.

2.  Indus waters are linked to the Kashmir dispute with two Indus tributaries rising in the disputed area and Indus itself rises in Tibet and runs through Kashmir on its way to Pakistan. (Italics ours)

3.  Journalists and scholars have long assumed that the water dispute was really about Kashmir or that the Kashmir dispute was actually about water.  It was not a simple cause and effect relationship but a complex, overlapping and shifting set of insecurities.

4. The treaty did nothing to reduce tensions over Kashmir.  The treaty did not address the geo political changes that Kashmir posed.

5.  The US was deeply involved in the settlement (treaty) and it was a very specific historical movement of opportunity that enabled the treaty to come about.

6.  The Indus Treaty was a boldly unique solution- the treaty’s key feature- a curiosity that the two countries divided the water according to location rather than water volume.

7.  Amending or renegotiating the treaty could once again highlight basic differences in the way the two governments view international water rights.

8.  The Treaty deserves credit for its durability and its role in preventing further escalation in tensions between the two countries during the mid-20th century.  The experience of history suggests that any new solution is bound to have unintended consequences.

III.Haamid Bukhari- Indus Water puts India in perpetual Loss: Rising Kashmir-October 11, 2017

This article, one of the best on the Indus Water treaty, makes an eloquent analysis in the third section of the Kashmiri view and how its interests were not taken into consideration and how it was not even consulted during the negotiation phase.  The points made by him are very relevant even today. These were

  1. The Eastern rivers given to India carries just 20-25% of the total flow of Indus system and the remaining 80% were allotted to Pakistan.  This meant that while India removed Pakistan from the picture with respect to development of eastern rivers the price it paid for this was the acceptance of limited rights over western rivers.
  2. Nehru’s efforts of creating goodwill and understanding with Pakistan by giving concessions through the Indus Treaty did not bear fruit.
  3. According to Prof. Muammad Siyad, JNU- if we take the internationally accepted Helsinki rules on equitable distribution of water and factors like utilization of waters-then India did not get a fair deal. Acc. to S.K. Gag the entitlement Of India would be 42.8 percent as against actual allocation of 20-25 percent flowing in the eastern rivers.
  4. The arbitration mechanism looks at the treaty from a political lens, thus halts the projects made by India in Kashmir like Baglihar, Tulbul and the latest Kishenganga projects.
  5.  India failed to keep interests of J&K in mind.
  6. The State of Kashmir in spite of being the upstream area has suffered due to restrictions placed by the Treaty on the unhinged usage of water of the three western rivers. The irony is that the state being rich in its hydel power resources has been facing a perennial problem of shortage of hydroelectric power. 
  7. There is therefore growing concern and anger over the Indus Treaty that has negative consequences for the State. 
  8. Abrogation of Treaty would incur strong international disapproval.  There would still be the requirement under international Law that the lower riparian should be informed and consulted about interventions.   India’s exclusive rights over eastern rights would disappear
  9. Reviewing the treaty is a better option to resort to.
  10. The treaty is essentially a “partitioning treaty.”
  11. Other areas of co-operation like timely sharing of information on floods, sharing experience and knowledge can be tried.
  12. Nehru was wrong in negotiating as something that can buy peace with Pakistan.


 The third paper from the Kashmiri quotes the view of Ramaswamy Aiyer, a veteran on this subject that it  is perhaps better to leave things as they are and hope for a more reasonable and constructive spirit that may prevail in future.   According to the author this appears to be platitudinous counseling but concludes that given the complexities involved nothing better seems available. I have the following observations to make.

1.  There is no doubt in my mind that Pakistan was the net beneficiary in the division of the rivers.  As said in one of the papers, if only international parameters had been followed as in the case of division of waters like Helsinki rules etc., India is entitled to have over 40 percent of the Indus waters. India has so far adhered to the Treaty to the letter and it is surprising that the treaty survived two major wars and other conflicts. This may not be so if Pakistan declares war on India or if there is a nuclear strike on India.  It is said that at the height of Kargil war Pakistan did assemble devices for immediate use!

2.  It is a fact that the State of Jammu& Kashmir has been most affected by the treaty.  Kashmir’s interests were neither taken into account nor was it consulted.  This is not the only case where the centre has ignored the States’s interests.  Another good example is the handing over of Kachhathivu to Sri Lanka when there was overwhelming evidence that the island belonged to India.  Tamil Nadu was never consulted.

3.  Abrogation of the treaty unilaterally is not an option.  India is not like the neighbouring regional bully that ignores international verdicts.  There will be intense international pressure and condemnation that cannot be ignored.  Secondly if the division of the rivers is ignored and instead replaced by equitable sharing of waters, it would only result in projects on the eastern rivers getting delayed as Pakistan is doing with the run of the river schemes on the western rivers in Kashmir.  

4.  Indus water treaty has not brought any good will on the part of Pakistan.  On the other hand, Pakistan’s approach all along has been political. Its hostility will continue.  The option for India is to go as many run of the river projects as possible and notifying Pakistan. If need be, the centre should step in and provide the necessary funds. For a state with immense potential hydro power to starve for technical and political reasons is not an acceptable situation.  The State of J&K should be compensated in a suitable and sustained way.

5.  It is an irony that while Punjab refuses to share waters with the sister state Haryana, it continues to let its entitled share of waters to Pakistan!  And Pakistan is not going to be grateful for that.

6.  A review at this stage will bring in more complexities that what could be handled and the present political situation is such that no agreement to the satisfaction of both sides is possible in the near or midterm.

7.  The best option would be to leave the treaty as it is as suggested by Ramaswamy Aiyer and try to implement the treaty in both letter and spirit by both the countries.   The division of rivers is unique that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Given the current environment, a review or even renegotiation will only bring in more complications.