“Between Earth and Earth’s atmosphere, the amount of water remains constant; there is never a drop more, never a drop less. This is a story of circular infinity, of a planet birthing itself.”

                                                             – Linda Hogan, Northern Lights, Autumn 1990


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In the first decade since partition of India in 1947, one of the most intractable issues left over was the sharing of river and canal waters. What had been developed as a single irrigation system over millennia had to be divided between two sovereign states. To make matters worse, the waters in question flowed through Kashmir, a region that had led to armed conflict soon in the formative years of the two states.

It took the good offices of the World Bank to negotiate a fair and acceptable treaty for the sharing of the waters of the Indus River System between India and Pakistan. This treaty is cited as a model of cooperation between two sworn enemies that even stood through three wars and a prolonged low intensity conflict. However, lately there have been a lot of stresses and strains on the treaty that may make water sharing a politically charged issue between India and Pakistan, possibly even overtaking the issue of Kashmir as the primary source of conflict.

This blog seeks to cover the brief historical perspective of the treaty, followed by a critical analysis of its provisions with a view to bring out implications of the treaty on water sharing between India and Pakistan. The study attempts to peep into the future of the treaty in the backdrop of recent differences in perception between India and Pakistan and the consequent potential of conflict. The study also seeks to make recommendations to enhance the cooperation in sharing of Indus waters so that the two countries can avert an avoidable conflict.




Geography of the Indus River Basin

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Fig : Major Tributaries of Indus River*

(Note: The map is used only for depiction of the geography of the basin. It does not represent correct political boundaries of the region)

The Indus river system consists of the Indus River and its major tributaries that include Kabul, Kurram, Swat, Jhelum and Chenab rivers in the West and Ravi, Beas and Sutlej in the East. The Indus originates near the Manasarovar Lake and travels through Tibet before entering India in the South Eastern part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thereafter, it passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir and then Pakistan before finally draining into the Arabian Sea near Karachi.

Major Tributaries Governed by the Indus Water Treaty

Sutlej             Originates in Tibet near Mount Kailash and passes through the Panjal and Shiwalik ranges before entering the fertile plains of Indian Punjab. It thereafter flows into Pakistan. The Bhakra Dam and Husseiniwala Headworks at the merger of Beas and Sutlej are important construction works on the Indian side. In addition, the Harike Headwork is the feeder to the Rajasthan and Sirhind Canals in India.

Beas  This 467km long river originates near the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh, India, and flows through the Kullu Valley and the Shiwalik Range. The Pandoh Dam on this river diverts water to the Sutlej through the Beas-Sutlej Link.

Chenab         This river originates in the Kangra and Kullu districts in Himachal Pradesh, India. It is joined by the Bhaga and Chandra rivers near Kishtwar before entering the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Chenab River enters Sialkot area of Pakistan through the Pir Panjal Range.

Jhelum & Kishenganga (Called Neelum in Pakistan)           The Kishenganga originates in mountains South of Deosai  Plateau, north of the Kashmir Valley. It merges into the Jhelum near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. The Jhelum itself originates in the Kashmir Valley and flows due West towards Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Ravi    The Ravi River originates in Himachal Pradesh, India and merges into the Chanab in Pakistan. On the Indian side, the Ranjit Sagar Dam is the most important construction work on this river which is located at the confluence of Himachal Pradesh, Punjad and the J&K states of India. On the Pakistani side, the Ravi feeds the Upper Bari Doab Canal (UBDC) which is a major source of irrigatin for the North-Western part of Pakistani Punjab.

Genesis of the Dispute

Pre-Partition Dispute

  • The British developed an elaborate system of irrigation canals in the Indus basin in the 19th
  • Most of the canals were constructed in the provinces of Punjab and Sind. However, each province built its own works independently due to lack of an integrated approach. Due to a lack of storage facilities, competition for the run-of-river flow increased and led to a dispute between Sind and Punjab in the 1930s. Events leading to the partition obstructed any final settlement of the dispute.


Post Partition Escalation of the Dispute

  • Standstill Agreement Upon partition, India became the upper riparian in all five rivers of the Indus Water Basin in Punjab due to the location of headworks on the Indian side of the international boundary. The standstill agreement lapsed on 31 March 1948 and India stopped the water supply to Pakistan on 01 Apr 1948 due to nonpayment of revenue. This is considered to be the start point of the escalation of the dispute as it created a fear psychosis in the minds of Pakistan that India could hold Pakistan to ransom on the issue of water.
  • Delhi Agreement The two countries signed a temporary Inter Dominion Agreement (also called the Delhi Agreement) in May 1948 to maintain the pre-partition status quo n water sharing till resolution of the dispute over revenue payment. However, India and Pakistan failed to resolve the dispute at a bilateral level due to lack of trust and political will on account of hardened domestic opinions.
  • Stalemate Over Payment of Revenue by Pakistan Pakistan wanted to escalate the dispute by referring it to the International Court of Justice which was rejected by India. On 01 Nov 1949, Pakistan declared the Delhi Agreement to be null and void and stopped making revenue payments with effect from July 1950. However, India continued to supply water to Pakistan without any disruption.

The Negotiation Process

Involvement of the World Bank            India and Pakistan had both applied for loans from the World Bank for development of works on the disputed waters of Sutlej, which were initially rejected. Later, the World Bank President, Eugene R. Black visited India and Pakistan and proposed the formation of a joint working group of engineers from India, Pakistan and the World Bank. He was of the view that the issue of sharing / division of water should be treated from a ‘functional’, rather than a political perspective.

Difference of Approach Between India and Pakistan          India wanted to use the water flowing through its territory to develop its own irrigation network. Pakistan was concerned about the resultant damage to its existing usage and the need to ensure uninterrupted supply of water for agriculture. As the negotiations were not making any headway, the World Bank put forward its own settlement proposals in Feb 1954, offering the three Eastern Rivers to India and the three Western Rivers to Pakistan.

The World Bank Plan        Under the proposed plan, Pakistan had to construct replacement works to channelize the waters of the western rivers to compensate for the loss of waters of the eastern rivers. The World Bank proposed that India should bear the cost of replacement works in Pakistan. While Pakistan wanted the Indian financial liability to cover the cost of all transfer works as well as developmental works, the huge financial liability of USD 1.2Billion was not acceptable to India. The World Bank President then proposed a solution as per which, India was required to pay a fixed sum of £62.060Million in ten equal yearly installments while the Bank would raise additional funds for Pakistan with the help of Western donor countries. The donors pledged an additional $900Million, clearing the way for the conclusion of the treaty.

Signing of the Treaty                    The treaty was signed in Karachi between the Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the Pakistani President Field Marshal Ayub Khan, along with the World Bank President W.A.B Illif, in September 1960. It was deemed effective from 01 Apr 1960 but was only ratified by the two governments later in January 1961.

Salient Features of the Treaty

The complete text of the IWT can be downloaded from the World Bank site. The url for accessing the same is as under:-

Click to access IndusWatersTreaty1960.pdf


Some salient features of the treaty are enumerated below.

Eastern Rivers        Sutlej, Beas and Ravi would be available for unrestricted use by India. Certain agricultural uses are allowed to Pakistan under the provisions of Annexure B of the treaty.

Western Rivers       Indus, Jhelum and Chenab would be available largely t opakistan except for the following limited and specified use by India:-

  • Domestic use.
  • Non consumptive use.
  • Agricultural Use India is permitted to draw from the Western rivers, water for irrigating 642,000 acres as per the existing usage on the day of signing of the treaty. In addition, the treaty also entitles India and additional area of 701,000 acres in the basins of the three Western rivers for irrigation as it would develop post the signing of the treaty.
  • Generation of hydroelectric power as run of river projects.
  • Storage Permitted to India on Western Rivers The quantum of storage allowed by India has been laid down in quantified terms for each Western river under the following heads:-
  • General Storage For all purposes, including generation of electricity.
  • Power Storage The treaty allows use of power storage water for other domestic purposes except for flood control and protection. Also, the storage capacity on Chenab can be adjusted by decreasing or increasing corresponding quantity in Jhelum or Chenab main.
  • Flood storage.
  • Waters in Western rivers can be diverted by India with the condition that the same is restored to the river within a week.
  • India is required to seek concurrence of project design from Pakistan if it undertakes any project on any of the three Western rivers.


Transition Period (10 years from the signing of the Treaty)

            Pakistan authorized to undertake replacement works on Western rivers in lieu of the loss of waters from the Eastern Rivers.

            Pakistan was to receive uninterrupted supply of water from Eastern rivers during the transition period.

            India was to contribute 62 million pounds in ten equal installments towards the construction of diversion and replacement works by Pakistan.

Permanent Indus Commission (PIC)

One commissioner each from India and Pakistan heads the PIC. The commissioner should be an engineer with competence in hydrology. The PIC should meet at least once annually (alternatively in each country) and submit a report to their governments by 30th June each year. The commissioners will be treated as official representatives of their governments for all issues related to the IWT.

Exchange of Data

The treaty lays down a mechanism for regular exchange of data regarding the flow and utilization of waters of the rivers through the meetings of the PIC.

Dispute Settlement Mechanism

            Disputes or disagreements on the interpretation of the IWT provisions have been classified into separate categories i.e. questions, differences and disputes, which are described as under:-

  • Any question on an issue alleged to be a violation or breach of the Treaty will be examined and analysed by the PIC first.
  • If the PIC fails to reach an agreement, a difference is deemed to have arisen.
  • A neutral expert appointed by the two governments in consultation, or by the World Bank in case of a lack of consensus will decide whether a dispute exists or not. The decision of the neutral expert will be binding on both the parties.
  • If a dispute is established, the commissioners report the same to their governments for resolution.
  • If the governments cannot reach an agreement or decision, they will initiate proceedings for setting up of a court of arbitration. Detailed composition and procedure for the court of arbitration are laid down in the treaty.

Guidelines for future cooperation between India and Pakistan on the development of the Indus river basin are also included in the treaty.

There is no exit clause in the treaty and it can only be terminated / replaced by another treaty.


Analysis of the Causative Factors

Water Rationality   this concept expects cooperation between co-riparians since neither conflict nor war can achieve any sustainable and practical water security. Water security can only be achieved by good water management practices at national as well as international levels. This theory stipulates that fresh water is so crucial that co-riparians will cooperate despite their political differences and animosity. India and Pakistan did attempt to resolve their water sharing dispute through bilateral negotiations but the discussions reached a stalemate due to lack of trust and accommodative spirit. Accepting the World Bank’s good offices was, therefore, a rational act by both the countries as they continued to find ways to cooperate.

Role of the World Bank    Given the inimical and belligerent attitude of India and Pakistan, the mediation by the World Bank acted as a facilitator for continued engagement and negotiations. The World Bank was able to leverage its position as the principal financer to both nations in taking the negotiations ahead. In addition, mid course correction by the World Bank proposing division of rivers rather than joint development was able to break the deadlock created due to differing positions of India and Pakistan on the sharing of the waters.

International Involvement and Contribution               Intervention by the USA and other developed countries by the way of supporting the World Bank efforts for settlement of the dispute gave the necessary impetus to the negotiation process. In addition, financial contributions by international donors to the Indus Basin Development Fund was an important pre-requisite for the treaty as India and Pakistan were not in a position to bear the huge cost of replacement and development works involved.







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