Indus Waters Treaty turns 60, disputes persist : The Tribune India

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Indus Waters Treaty turns 60, disputes persist

The existing geopolitical situation and the emerging China-Pakistan water axis prevent any workable negotiations with Pakistan. The only option with India at present is to draw the maximum benefit from provisions of the treaty. This would involve utilising all available waters of the eastern rivers and exploiting full potential of the western rivers for irrigation and hydro-power. Pakistan’s rhetoric over the matter will have to be tackled diplomatically as heretofore.

Indus Waters Treaty turns 60, disputes persist

Upper Hand: Every time Pakistan has taken India to neutral arbitrators or court of arbitration with accusations of non-compliance with the treaty, the ruling has been in India’s favour.



Lt Gen Pramod Grover (Retd)

Former State Information Commissioner, Punjab 

The Indus Waters Treaty, hailed as one of the finest, the most sophisticated and comprehensive international water treaties, remains a contentious issue even after 60 years. For India and Pakistan, the blame game carries on.

The 1960 treaty is perhaps the only agreement that physically divides the river system between two nation-states and the only one wherein a third party, the World Bank, played a crucial role in not just brokering for a protracted period of 10 years to work out the specific arrangement, but was also a signatory.

This treaty addressed specific water allocation issues, providing unique design requirements for the run-of-the-river dams to ensure steady water flow and guarantee power generation through hydroelectricity, and also provides a mechanism for consultation and arbitration should questions, disagreements, or disputes arise between the incumbents. Some disputes notwithstanding, the treaty continues to remain intact despite the trust deficit between the two nuclear neighbours, and the established fact that Pakistan exports and supports terrorism in India. For its continuance, the role of India’s political leadership must be acknowledged.

Following the development and construction of several projects by India on the western rivers, such as the Salal hydroelectric project, the Wullar barrage project, the Baglihar hydroelectric project, and the Kishenganga hydroelectric project to name a few since 1976, Pakistan has been accusing India of several violations of the treaty. In fact, due to the storage/diversion of western river waters associated with these projects, it also holds India responsible for any shortage of water that it is facing. In response, however, India has maintained that it has all along adhered to the provisions of the treaty in letter and in spirit and has never deprived Pakistan of its share of water under the treaty and has no intention of doing so. Every time Pakistan has taken India to neutral arbitrators or a court of arbitration with accusations of non-compliance with the treaty, the ruling has been in India’s favour.

Over the past decade, Pakistan has been accusing India of diverting/storing water entitled to Pakistan on the western rivers. It is demanding a bigger share of water from rivers that run from India even though India, as per the treaty, generously gave away 80.52 per cent of the Indus system waters to Pakistan for indefinite duration. Pakistan has also been highlighting at various international forums that water scarcity in Pakistan is being caused (or partially caused) by Indian action, a situation that would seriously jeopardise economic growth and prove to be a health hazard for Pakistan.

To put Pakistan’s viewpoint and concerns in perspective, we need to focus on some of the imperatives of the treaty. First, it allocates the water of the three western rivers to Pakistan, but allows India to tap the considerable hydropower potential before the rivers enter Pakistan. Second, the treaty allowed India to create storage on the western rivers of 1.25, 1.60, and 0.75 MAF (million acre feet) for general, power, and flood storages, respectively, amounting to total permissible storage of 3.6 MAF. Third, the treaty does not require India to deliver assured quantities of water to Pakistan and instead it requires India to let flow to Pakistan the water available in these rivers excluding the limited use permitted to India by the treaty. Fourth, there are no quantitative limits to the hydroelectricity that India can produce using the western rivers nor any limit to the number of run-of-the-river projects India can build.

Since hydro-power does not consume water, the only issue is timing. Pakistan must realise that the overall effect the run-of-the-river hydro-power projects will have is perhaps a negligible delay as far as timing is concerned. Secondly, for general, power, and flood storages amounting to total permissible storage of 3.6 MAF, India has built no storage and is yet to utilise fully its entitlement. Further, of the 1.34 million acres permitted for irrigation, India is using only 0.792 million acres. Out of an assessed potential of 18,653 MW, only projects worth 3,264 MW have been commissioned so far. Any reduced flows into Pakistan from time to time are not the result of any violation of the treaty by India or any action to divert such flows from the western rivers.

Pakistan is facing a grim situation regarding its fast-depleting fresh water resources. Detailed analysis indicates water scarcity problems, mainly due to high inefficiency of water use in irrigation (80% of the water is used for low value agriculture production), increased levels of water pollution, lack of water storage facility and competing needs driven by high population growth in Pakistan. Estimates indicate that the availability of water in Pakistan has been consistently declining over the past few decades, from 5,000 cubic metres per capita 60 years ago to 1,000 cubic metres per capita at present, and is estimated to fall to about 800 cubic metres per capita by 2025. Pakistan has also realised that there will be an increase in the demand for water due to the impact of climate change. This is because higher levels of irrigation are needed to compensate for increased evaporation. Thus, in order to provide water security, Pakistan has now commenced construction of dams with Chinese assistance on the western rivers.

What is the future of this treaty? Is there a need to revisit it? The response is simple. Unfortunately, there is no clause to withdraw from it unilaterally. Various sane voices from both sides have suggested that both India and Pakistan should realise the strategic importance of water as an economic resource and discuss efforts required to jointly optimise the potential of the Indus River System as per Article VII (‘Future Cooperation’) of the treaty.

However, the existing geopolitical situation and the emerging China-Pakistan water axis prevent any workable negotiations with Pakistan. Both the Indus and Sutlej originate from China, which has been constructing storage/dams on these rivers before they enter the Indian territory.

The only workable option with India at present is to draw the maximum benefit from provisions of the treaty. This would involve utilising all available waters of the eastern rivers and exploiting full potential of the western rivers for irrigation and hydro-power (including permissible storage) while remaining within the four corners of the provisions of the treaty. Simultaneously, a study group of experts should be convened to work out future course of action to include utilisation/transfer of water of the western rivers including legal ramifications in case the need arises. Pakistan’s inevitable rhetoric over the matter will have to be tackled diplomatically as heretofore.


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