Indus is considered the backbone of Northern India’s and Pakistan’s agricultural sectors, during the partition of the two nations, several concerns were raised over the water sharing of the Indus. As tensions rose, a water war between the two rival nations seemed imminent.
It was the level-headedness of both parties and the willingness to accept international mediation that led to the conception of the Indus Waters Treaty. Despite India and Pakistan going through 3 wars (1965, 1971, 1999) and several challenges, the treaty still stands to this day. In this article, the author briefly discusses the factors that led to the signing of the treaty and the recent developments on the treaty.
The Indus Waters Treaty is widely regarded as a remarkable achievement in the realm of international treaties. It stands as a shining example of effective diplomacy and cooperation between nations. It shows how two rival, upper and lower-riparian countries can work together in tandem to safeguard the interests of both parties. Regardless of the tensions and conflicts experienced throughout the 63 years of the treaty, it still stands to this day. The treaty has also acted as a foundation and a framework for irrigation and hydropower development for the two nations for more than six decades. And has helped mitigate the risk of a water war between the nations.
The treaty was first formulated as a framework for building a cooperative mechanism and an example of how two countries could come together for the benefit of their people, rather than their national interests.
The Indus Waters Treaty was brokered by the World Bank on September 19, 1960, and was signed between India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan. After nine years of negotiation, both the
parties agreed to sign the document. The treaty was signed primarily as a preemptive measure to tackle any chance of a water war between the two nations, but also to help further the development of the two nations.
Considering the high population density and the dependence on agriculture that both Pakistan and India had, the distribution and ‘ownership’ of the rivers were of paramount importance. “Even before Partition, Sindh and Punjab had witnessed wrangles over the sharing of the waters of these rivers.” (The Hindu, 2016)
Another crucial factor contributing to the successful cooperation under the Indus Waters Treaty was the shared commitment of both nations to a pragmatic and forward-thinking approach toward water sharing. The two countries demonstrated remarkable foresight and an understanding of the importance of water rationality for the long-term benefit of their respective populations. “They had realized that cooperation was a prerequisite for safeguarding their country’s long-term access to the shared resource A war over water would not have guaranteed either country’s water supply in the long term” (Modak, S. 2019)
The IWT declared that “(5) The term “Eastern Rivers” means The Sutlej, The Beas, and The Ravi taken together. (6) The term “Western Rivers” means The Indus, The Jhelum, and The Chenab taken together.” (Indus Waters Treaty, World Bank). The rights to the “Eastern Rivers” were retained by India and the rights to “Western Rivers” were granted to Pakistan.
A transition period of 10 years was decided (which was extendable to up to 13 years on Pakistan’s request), during this period the eastern rivers would be exclusively allocated to India, while the western rivers would exclusively be allocated to Pakistan. “During the transition period, Pakistan would undertake a system of works, part of which would replace from the western rivers such irrigation uses in Pakistan as had hitherto been met from the eastern rivers. While the system of works was under construction, India would continue to supply water from the eastern rivers according to the agreed program.’(The Hindu, 2016)
The Permanent Indus Commission was formed under the aegis of the treaty as a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange between India and Pakistan regarding their use of the rivers, both nations had to appoint a commissioner.
There were three ways in which issues were resolved: Initially, the Commissioners would address any “questions” that arose. If these questions remained unresolved, they would be escalated to the level of “differences,” requiring the intervention of a Neutral Expert for resolution. In case the differences remained unsettled, they would then turn into “disputes.” These disputes would be referred to the seven-member arbitral tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration for resolution.
There have been several developments since the formulation of the treaty including disagreements over the Kisgenganga and Ratle hydroelectric power plants, the revival of the World Bank’s role in mediating between the two nations, and India issuing a notice to Pakistan seeking a review of the treaty. These topics will be briefly explained here.
The issue began when India announced and later shared the design features of the Kishenganga (330 megawatts) and Ratle (850 megawatts) hydroelectric power plants with Pakistan. Pakistan showed concerns that the dams post-construction would likely disrupt the flow of water into the country which is especially crucial for its agriculture. A statement issued by the Foreign Office said, “Pakistan believes that the inauguration of the project without the resolution of the dispute is tantamount to violation of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).” (Press release 168/2018, Government of Pakistan) To seek a resolution for the issue, Pakistan elevated the issue to a “dispute”, while India affirmed that it was a “difference”. The World Bank then halted its involvement in December 2016 ”to allow the two countries to consider alternative ways to resolve their disagreements.” (World Bank, 2016) To safeguard the treaty.
The Kishenganga powerplant was inaugurated in 2018 while the Ratle powerplant’s construction began in 2022, the two projects are being built on Jhelum and Chenab, respectively.
On March 31, 2022, the World Bank decided to resume the process of appointing a Neutral Expert and a Chairman for the Court of Arbitration, they were Mr. Michel Lino and Mr. Sean Murphy respectively, any decision is yet to be declared.
India issued a notice to Pakistan in January, this year, seeking a review of the treaty given “Islamabad’s ‘intransigence’ in complying with the dispute redressal mechanism” of the pact. Pakistan later issued a notice in April responding to the notice but its details are yet to be publicly released.
Indus Waters Treaty, a treaty between two openly hostile nations is held up as a gold standard globally, a shining example for other nation-states to put civilians concerns ahead of national interest, to compromise rather than meet each other on the battlefield, to remain level-headed and maintain peace.
Though the situation might seem tenuous now, doing away with the treaty would cause more harm than good for both countries. Not only would they be admonished by the global community, especially at a time when states are in dire need of coming together and cooperating to improve the status of water security. This would set up an example for other states to not partake in similar water treaties and to seek national interests above civilian interests.
Therefore, it is definitely in both Pakistan’s and India’s best interest to continue the Indus Waters Treaty and avoid its termination. It is imperative that both nations must honor the treaty’s commitments over a resource that everyday lives depend on. Both countries will need to be equally committed to protecting the IWT. Above all, the fundamental principle of water rationality remains of utmost importance in this context.
- Hamid, S. (2013): Revisiting the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, Water International, 38:2, 204-216. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2013.784494
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- Modak, S. India needs to keep the Indus waters treaty intact. ORF. March 22, 2019.
- Press Release 168/2018. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Pakistan. May 18, 2018.
- World Bank Declares Pause to Protect Indus Waters Treaty. World Bank, December 12, 2016.
- Saving the IWT. Dawn. February 9, 2023.
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