Economy & Education Original Articles

Water Security in South Asia: Revisiting the Indus Water Treaty – by Abdul Samad


In what has been predominantly a climate of belligerence and hostility between India and Pakistan over the past six decades, the Indus Water Treaty is one of the few instances where both countries have cooperated in a matter of mutual concern. The Treaty has been generous [1] to Pakistan (allocating 80.52 % of the water of the six river system)  but calls for its abrogation in the face of changing political realities- a repeat of the 2008 Mumbai attack- shall prove detrimental to both countries as a ‘water war’ [2] would become likely, if not inevitable. Absent a political framework which the IWT provides, confrontation and chaos would ensue.

Pakistan’s principal objection stems from the belief that upstream dams constructed by India allow it to control and by extension, manipulate the water flow into Pakistan (also termed as the lower riparian anxiety complex). Rebutting this particular sentiment, India’s foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao [3], called such allegations “breast-beating propaganda,” adding “the myth of water theft does not stand the test of rational scrutiny or reason.” John Briscoe estimates that if India builds all the projects in the pipeline, the result from the ‘collective live storage’ could amount to the holding up of a month’s worth of river flow during Pakistan’s critical dry season. Such a scenario augurs ominously for Pakistan whose economy is centered on agriculture mainly in Punjab, the breadbasket of the country. The Kishanganga project, started in 1994, is vehemently opposed by Pakistan (the matter having been presented for arbitration at The Hague) which claims that the diversion of water will adversely effect irrigation and hydroelectric power generation on the Neelum River. Crucially, the dispute is not whether India can build the dam, which it can, as stipulated in the IWT, but rather on how the dam should be built and the timely release of water. If India holds a portion of the water during the planting season [4], crop failure could result in Pakistan, driving down the economy and igniting social and political turmoil.


India contends that its dams are ‘run of the river’ and are primarily used for hydroelectric generation (a non-consumptive use) which has consequently no effect whatsoever on the water supply of Pakistan. Considered from an ecological perspective, that is a fallacious argument [5] as large dams wreak havoc on the ecological web of the river system and reduce water quality downstream. Some experts propose that India should harness and make full use of the Eastern Rivers and resume construction of the Kishanganga and Tulbul Navigation Project, notwithstanding objections from Pakistan.  John Briscoe makes an important observation in an interview with the Economist: “The Baglihar decision allowed a reservoir on a river coming into Pakistan, and now a precedent is set,”. Given that Pakistan accepted, however grudgingly, the verdict of international arbitration follows that India can build more dams over the headwaters of the Indus, while remaining within the bounds of the IWT, of which there are 33, at various stages of completion.


The biggest threat in South Asia emerges from the trio of diminishing water tables, burgeoning population and climate change (an alteration in the monsoon cycle with increasing dry spells). The Indus River is dangerously susceptible to climate change as 50 to 60 percent of the water flow of the Indus comes from the glacial melt of the Himalayas. Also, importantly, at the time of its constitution in 1960, the IWT did not bear in mind the more recent emergence of climate change. According to a 2009 Purdue University study [6], climate change has resulted in an eastern shift in monsoon circulation which leads to less rainfall over India, Nepal and Pakistan. This is especially threatening to regional stability given that the summer monsoon rainfall provides 90 per cent of India’s total water supply.


In the case of India and Pakistan, to carry forward the argument, the crucial missing element is a lack of trust [7]. The water dispute is exacerbated by bureaucrats who refuse to share information with one another on current and future projects, as both countries race to initiate construction of new dams. A treaty is required for the division of water simply because Pakistan does not have the conviction that India will not resort to water hegemony in the long run.  An alternative would be for both Pakistan and India to potentially cut down on waste and utilize existing resources more efficiently by improving irrigation canals and farming techniques [8]. The Strategic Foresight Group, in a detailed report entitled, The Indus Equation [9], tellingly detailed how 25 percent of the water supply in the irrigation sector in Pakistan is misappropriated through “line losses”, and how 36 percent of the water is absorbed by crops. Seen this way, water management translates into conflict management.


Both India and Pakistan, make no mistake- would and should, given the state of acute water scarcity [10], pursue their national interest, which in this case, translates into maximizing freshwater availability. That being considered, I propose that the two nations should engage in what could be encapsulated as “enlightened national interest”, or as what Mr. Manmohan Singh [11] himself has articulated back in 2009, as the collective pursuit of shared problems by fostering a climate of understanding and reconciliation. What provides hope for optimism is that the IWT has never been breached by India (the flow of water was not blocked crucially during the 1965 and 1971 war), that the two sides continue to exchange technical information on water flow and also that India is well under the storage capacity allocated to it in the Western rivers.

While it is true that Pakistan is vulnerable to Indian water hegemony (forms of which could transpire in the foreseeable future), especially as freshwater supplies dwindle and glaciers melt, the provisions of the IWT sufficiently safeguard the lower riparian in that India cannot retain the water for more than 24 hours, cannot significantly alter the timing of water flow due to limitations on live storage and is only allowed ‘run of the river’ access for its dams. In the careful watch of the international community and India’s own stated objectives of employing ‘soft power’ to become a great power, blatant violations of the IWT, including an abrogation of the treaty, are difficult to conceive of. India will however, and as seems the government stance, construct dams on the headwaters of the Indus River, operating within the bounds of the IWT, no matter how much outcry Pakistan is able to generate.


The IWT, having stood the test of time, should, in my opinion, remain in place for the foreseeable future (expansion and revision, if agreed upon, would be beneficial). Needless to say, cooperation between India and Pakistan, as underscored by Briscoe, is pivotal to water security and hence regional stability, with climate change increasingly acting as the ‘third party’. However, considered from a realist perspective [12], transnational rivers present more competition than cooperation and India would have to build more dams on the Western Rivers to cater to its ever growing population. In the line between safeguarding national interest and pursuing soft power, India would have to conduct itself masterfully.





[1] The volume of water earmarked for Pakistan is more than 90 times greater than the 1.85 billion cubic metres the US is required to release for Mexico under the 1944 US-Mexico Water Treaty. Nehru is, on occasion, cursed in India for the IWT’s disproportionate water allocation, but one would have to understand that India extracted significant strategic advantages from the treaty, including consumptive use of three Western rivers and besides, there is no set restriction on India in relation to building dams for hydroelectric power generation. Many in Pakistan fail to gather this final point.


[2] The threat of war looms in the face of jingoistic nationalism, as an article in the Economist- Unquenchable Thirst-expounds. This is all the more remarkable because Pakistan, being the upper riparian needs the safeguards provided by the Treaty, and this war mongering owes more to religious sentiment than geo-political calculations. India, being the regional hegemon and the upper riparian, as Briscoe notes, is in an ideal position.

“Water is the latest battle cry for   jihadis,” says B.G. Verghese, an Indian writer. “They shout that water must flow, or blood must flow.” Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terror group, likes to threaten to blow up India’s dams. Last year a Pakistani extremist, Abdur Rehman Makki, told a rally that if India were to “block Pakistan’s waters, we will let loose a river of blood.”


[4] A US Senate report — “Avoiding Water Wars” in South and Central Asia- while recognizing that IWT has played a stabilizing role in the region, states that the treaty is subject to pressure with rising water demand in both India and Pakistan:


“Studies show that no single dam along the waters controlled by the Indus Waters Treaty will affect Pakistan`s access to water, (but) the cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season,”


[5] ” The alteration of a river’s flow and sediment transport downstream of a dam often causes the greatest sustained environmental impacts. Life in and around a river evolves and is conditioned on the timing and quantities of river flow. Disrupted and altered water flows can be as severe as completely de-watering river reaches and the life they contain. Yet even subtle changes in the quantity and timing of water flows impact aquatic and riparian life, which can unravel the ecological web of a river system”.


[7] There are some extreme voices in India, such as that of Haryana Chief Minister, Om Prakash Chautala, who in the wake of an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, called for the annulment of the IWT in the following statement: All political parties should unitedly oppose the Indus water treaty as Pakistan has been indulging in vitiating environment of peace in India. In Pakistan likewise, the leader of the LeT, Hafiz Saeed, has threatened India to war if it closes or curtails the supply of water to Pakistan. In a rather dramatic proclamation, he has been quoted as saying that “ Muslims dying of thirst would drink the blood of India ”.


[8] Shah Mahmood Qureshi, former foreign minister of Pakistan, made a crucial argument when he called for the better utilization of Pakistan’s water resources, given how 34 million acre feet of water are wasted due to mismanagement. This is encouraging for all too often, Pakistani officials redirect criticism onto their Indian counterparts, as to stealing waters of the Indus.


[10] The recent crippling power shortage in India affecting a total of 670 million people-a tenth of humanity- came as a considerable blow to the country’s international standing and prestige, making it all the more important that electricity be produced through the means of hydropower. Pakistan, with its repeated objections first over the Baghlihar and now the Kishanganga dam, has delayed the building up of dams, thus affecting India’s present electricity generation capacity.



[12] Brahma Chellaney, in a Times of India article, maps out an argument related to the one presented in the IDSA report, where he questions the central question of balancing national interest with soft power goals:  “ In this light, it is fair to ask: Is India condemned to perpetual generosity towards its neighbors?  Generosity in diplomacy can yield rich dividends if it is part of a strategically geared outreach designed to ameliorate the regional security situation so that India can play a larger global role. But if it is not anchored in the fundamentals of international relations – including reciprocity and leverage building – India risks accentuating its tyranny of geography, even as it is left holding the bag”.

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