Indus Water Treaty: Need for Re-imagination of the River

The World Bank brokered 1960 Indus Water Treaty, celebrated as a success story of water-sharing conflict resolution having withstood 3 wars, is basically a water-partitioning agreement with substantial protocols for addressing disputes and disagreements arising out of water-sharing.  The technical density and the nature of division of waters, aggravated by the political conflict between India and Pakistan has subjected the treaty to substantial wear and tear.  With the treaty having no embedded capability of handling variability arising from environmental degradation, uncertain weather patterns and changing climatic conditions, there is a case for reviewing and upgrading it into a more co-operative water management framework necessary for increasing the viability of irrigation and sustainable management of the river system.

Indus Water Treaty: Best Deal of the Times? 

Experts describe the Indus Water Treaty, signed after long and tortuous discussions, as the best deal of the times reflecting the political compulsions and water management philosophy of the times.  It allocated 3 western rivers to Pakistan and 3 eastern ones to India while permitting non-consumptive access to India to the western rivers with maximum 3.6 million acre feet storage for limited agriculture, hydro-power generation and transport. Under it about 80% waters are allocated to Pakistan and 20% to India in what many in India feel is an unfair settlement somehow accepted by the negotiators. On the other hand, Pakistan feels that India has got too much water considering that the territory that went to India historically used only 10% of water. According to officials in Indian Ministry of Water Resources, the treaty provides for a potential of 1.4 million hectares to be irrigated and 19000 MW hydro-power to be generated through run-of-river projects.  However only 8 lakh hectares have been irrigated and only 3000 MW hydro-power is being generated annually. India wants to maximise the water potential under the treaty specially in the background of dissatisfaction in Jammu & Kashmir that the treaty restrictions hamper its developmental potential.  In fact in 2003 the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly passed an unanimous resolution demanding a review of the treaty, while in April 2016 they demanded compensation for lost hydro-power potential.  But Indian efforts at utilizing the water potential under the treaty only fuels Pakistan’s lower riparian insecurity with Pakistan continuously having  technical disagreements in India’s planned power projects. While the Baglihar power plant conflict  could be settled in 2007 only under arbitration by a Neutral Expert, the Kishenganga project dispute is under reference of an arbitration court.

Differences & Disputes inherent in Nature & Structure of Indus Water treaty

Experts agree that it is the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty  limiting the use of western rivers by India that is the main cause of the conflict with differences arising both from the highly technical nature of the treaty as well as the nature of division of waters under the treaty.  The various technical conditions and restrictions under the treaty  relating to different engineering structures and features like crest levels of spillways, location of intake for turbines, pondage levels,  limits to artificially raising water levels in operational pools, etc lend themselves to different interpretations and approaches resulting in technical disagreements over the meaning and applications of treaty criteria.  While Indian engineers approach  is to primarily focus on techno-economic viability of the projects to get best benefits under the provisions of the treaty, Pakistani engineers tend to  focus primarily on the provisions and restrictions treating the techno-economic viability as secondary.   With these two basically different approaches, there is little scope for mutually acceptable modifications in the planned projects.

Differences also arise due to the very nature of the division of waters which has created an adversarial situation in relation to Indian use of the western rivers through technical restrictions and specifications meant to safeguard Pakistan’s interests.  Pakistan feels that Indian structures upstream on the western rivers will reduce water flow downstream or enable India to release stored waters and flood its territory.  Pakistan thus frames the problem partly in terms of water security and partly in terms of national security.  India’s stated position that its capacity to reduce water flow downstream is limited while it cannot flood Pakistan without first flooding itself has failed to assuage Pakistan’s lower riparian anxiety.  That the treaty does not specify the maximum number of projects or the height of dams or total hydro-power capacity or that India is bound to send all technical data regarding the planned projects in advance to Pakistan only adds to the complexity of the issue.  The upshot is that while India tries to make maximum use of its entitlements under the treaty, Pakistan tends to exercise the virtual veto power the treaty gives it stringently rather than in an accomodating manner. It must however be mentioned that water experts in track II discussions have often expressed the worry that while a single project has no capacity to reduce water flows downstream, the cumulative impact of a number of projects could affect water flow downstream.  Indian water expert late Ramaswamy  Iyer had expressed the view in some of his writings that since a cumulative impact study of projects in the Ganges basin is being done, a similar one could be done in the Indus basin with experts from both sides.

Treaty lacks Social and Ecological Perspective on River System 

By virtue of its techno-engineering approach, the treaty has ignored the organic nature of water and its relationships with people and livelihoods resulting in inequitable sharing and insufficient conservation of the precious resource.  By treating the river system as mere volumes of water contained in channels, the treaty has ignored the implications of interconnections between the river’s natural flow and other elements of the ecosystem like lakes, under-ground acquifer, wetlands, marshes and mangrooves.  The treaty does not say  anything about maintaining  a minimum environmental flow for purpose of maintenance of delta ecosystems downstream.  The view that any water that goes into the sea is waste ignores the need for sufficient fresh water to reach the delta to maintain a healthy balance between fresh and saline water and to safeguard the estuarine-mangroove ecosytem. In a very real sense, the treaty does lack a sense of social and ecological sensitivity.  However in the words of late Ramasway Iyer ‘ the treaty is a product of the times which has largely served as a moderating factor in the hydro-politics of the two countries curbing their worst impulses’

Need to Re-imagine the Indus River 

Based on analysis of drivers of conflict in the basin like riparian position, basin dependence, media framing, adversarial institutional structures and processes, relative military and economic strengths, experts opine that while India is precariously balanced between conflict and co-operation, Pakistan is definitely skewed towards conflict.  They say that the absence of open conflict in the basin is not necessarily an indicator of presence of co-operation but of negative peace.  Under conditions of negative peace both countries are taking water decisions in the background of imperfect and insufficient knowledge about the intentions and capabilities of each other with terribly sub-optimal results. Both countries are adopting the  precautionary principle of assuming the worst possible scenario perceiving the other as a threat and taking even more stringent measures.  Experts again opine that the sustainability of the treaty requires both technical and social ingenuity.  While technical ingenuity exists, there is lack of social capital in an atmosphere of mistrust, lack of deep listening, lack of search for common grounds across differences and perceived riparian vulnerability by Pakistan.

New Compact for Indus System Management:

The increasing unsustainability of irrigated agriculture, the need to harness hydro-power in Jammu & Kashmir in quest for clean energy, and climate change with its predicted impact in terms of glacial melt and changing precipitation patterns are strong push factors for a review of the IWT. If division of waters is a flawed water management concept and practice, then handling and harnessing the variability in water flow has been recognised as the crux of sustainable  river management approach.  Further if climate change is about intensification of variability and unpredictability of water flow, then the IWT with its emphasis on neat average flows and statistical predictability of water availability will not be able to handle conflicts arising out of hydraulic volatility.

The techno-engineering approach of maximum water extractions from  the river has been increasingly challenged by ecologists who have demonstrated that fluvial regimes are complex geo-morphological, chemical and biological processes in motion with a natural flow regime which regulates various ecological processes.  Arguing that rivers are integral components of complex ecological systems forming an intricate part of the cultural, economic and social lives of communities, they have said that reducing rivers to the waters that they carry is a sadly instrumentalist view of the river system.  They have advocated that the steel and concrete engineering approaches must give way to a entirely new spectrum of management in which the embedded ecological and social contexts of the river system must be acknowledged.

Pluralistic Narratives Needed:

A renewed compact for the Indus river system requires effective de-centering of the techno-engineering approach based on the expertise of water engineers, and harnessing instead the expertise and experiences of a whole lot of social constituencies across the basin.  This will involve a co-operative dialogue between different river-based communities on either side of the border like fishermen, irrigation-dependent farmers, river ecologists, water historians, sociologists, water experts, agriculture economists, etc.  These plural narratives will impart the new Indus compact with the much needed social and ecological perspective which will have the potential to transform the hydro-politics of the basin into a mutually beneficial co-operation.  That will work in favour of a more prudent management of the basin’s rapidly depleting water resources, and help address issues of environmental degradation and climate change challenges.

While it goes without saying that any negotiation  on reviewing the IWT will be utterly contingent on significant improvements in bilateral relations, it must be emphasized that certain changes in attitudes, approaches and perspectives could prod both countries towards a more constructive and co-operative spirit in the operations of the treaty.  There is a need to reframe the water  crisis in the basin as one of relative water scarcity instead of absolute water scarcity which will limit economic development and affect national security.  Because 75% of Pakistan’s water originates in India and because 95% of its agriculture depends on Indus waters, Pakistan has framed the water crisis in a framework of national security with the discourse strongly marked with existential threat.  But the very fact that over 90%  water drawls are used in agriculture where its efficiency is less than 40% is a clear indication that water scarcity in the basin is more institutional and can be tackled through appropriate engineering and institutional reforms.

Need for Counter Securitizing Narrative: 

Along with a more pluralistic narrative, there is also a need to centre-stage a counter water securitising narrative through a focus on better water management both from the supply and demand side.  Desecuritisation of water scarcity requires that strong sentiments of water nationalism and food nationalism need to be toned down and the water crisis should be framed within a poor water governance matrix in both basin countries. In this context,  both countries have to take steps like focussing  more on open communications on water data and working  out mechanisms for mutual assistance during extreme events and disasters.  The media, specially in Pakistan, should be encouraged not to sensationalize the water scarcity issue as an existential threat, but to focus   the debate on  better water management, innovative agricultural practices, environmental degradation, inter-provincial water-related conflicts, etc.  At the official level, confidence building measures such as thickening of track II diplomacy, softening of borders, and actively enabling exchange of scholars and water experts will be of immense use in diluting the atmosphere of mistrust.  There is also a need to strengthen  integrated multi-disciplinary approach in decision-making over India’s hydro-power projects rather than leaving it to engineers alone  because hydro-power projects on the western rivers fall in the realm of foreign policy. At the field  level efforts should be made to leverage the close historic and cultural ties between farmers in Indian and Pakistan parts of Punjab for sharing  water management experiences. That the Punjab Water Council of Pakistan, a forum of farmers, have already expressed the need to talk to Indian farmers on the issue of water is an indication that stakeholders on either side of the border are ready to take a more integrated view of the river system.


In conclusion I  would like to say that co-operative institutional mechanisms like Joint Data Centres, Regional Environmental Monitoring Centres and platforms like Joint Working Groups for sharing of experiences on technology use, policy and institutional structures will go a long way in paving the ground for a more beneficial management of the river system.  That the arbitration verdicts both in the Baglihar and Kishenganga power projects have chosen to adopt an interpretative approach towards the technical provisions of the treaty in attempts to inform its operations with contemporary international law principles  of environment protection and sustainable development points to the direction in which future development in the basin should move.  While the 2007 Baglihar award upheld India’s right to use state of art technology for building the dam, the 2013 partial award in case of Kishenganga has upheld the need for minimum environmental flows downstream to Pakistan.  In the longer term both countries have to explore every political and cultural opportunity to move towards a joint and holistic management of the river system aimed at sustainable development in the basin and building capacity to face climate change challenges.

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