TA Explained: The Indus Water Treaty

By Gautam Kumar

After fresh discussions between delegates of India and Pakistan on March 23-24 in New Delhi, focus on Indus Water Treaty (IWT) is back.  

After the unfortunate Pulwama terror attack in  February 2019, there was a long gap in diplomatic talks regarding IWT, which governs the water distribution between the two neighboring countries.  The Indian government was so anguished by the attack on armed forces that Union Minister Nitin Gadkari went on to say, “the Central government was planning to build three projects on three rivers (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej), water of which was flowing to Pakistan, to block the flow of India’s share of Indus water into Pakistan”.

About the Indus River

The Indus rises in Tibet, near Lake Mansarovar. Flowing west, it enters India in the Union Territory of Ladakh. Several tributaries like Zaskar, Nubra, Shyok and Hunza join it in the Kashmir region. In Pakistan, the Indus flows through Gilgit-Baltistan and emerges from the mountains at Attock. 

Satluj, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum are joined together before they meet river Indus near Mithankot in Pakistan. Beyond this, the Indus flows southwards eventually reaching the Arabian Sea.

Brief history of the treaty

Prior to the signing of the treaty, water sharing arrangements were made on an ad hoc basis. After IWT, exclusive usage rights to the three eastern rivers – Sutlej, Beas and Ravi were granted to India and those to three western rivers – Chenab, Jhelum and Indus were given to Pakistan. 

IWT was signed by the then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan President Ayub Khan on 19th September 1960. The World Bank played a key role in brokering the IWT. The treaty describes how river Indus and its tributaries that flow through both the countries can be effectively utilized by both the nations for their needs, without any disputes.

As the river Indus flows from India, the country is allowed to use 20% of its water for irrigation, power generation and transport purposes while the remaining 80% is reserved for Pakistan. Treaty has been hailed to be a big success as it has survived the four wars that the two neighbours have engaged in since its implementation. 

Despite Indus being originated from Tibet, China is not a party to IWT. 

(80% of the water usage is reserved for Pakistan as per the provisions of IWT. Pic: India Today)

What are the major provisions of the treaty?

Indian rivers represent one-fifth of the total flow of the Indus system while the remainder was granted to Pakistan. All of these six rivers flow through Kashmir, the region that continues to be a contentious issue in the bilateral relationship. As the treaty currently stands, water cannot be tied to the resolution of tensions caused by Kashmir. 

The treaty also established the Permanent Indus Commission and the position of Indus Water Commissioner in both countries. The commission continued to meet even during the wars of 1965 and 1971, showing the entrenched nature of the pragmatism that exists between the two countries over water usage rights. 

As per the provisions of IWT, India is allowed to carry restricted development on the three western rivers within its own territory. The treaty does not exclude India from utilising the western rivers that were allocated to Pakistan. 

As they pass through Indian Territory, India is permitted limited use of these waters for drinking purposes, existing agricultural use with some limited expansion, storage of no more than 3.6 million acre-feet and generation of hydroelectric power through run-of-the-river projects. 

What are some key issues related to IWT? 

India has fast-tracked several hydropower projects on the Indus river basin. It includes Durbuk-Shyok (19 megawatts), Shankoo (18.5 megawatts), Nimu Chilling (24 megawatts), Rongdo (12 megawatts), Ratan Nag (10.5 megawatts) in Leh and Mangdum Sangra (19 megawatts), Hunderman (25 megawatts), and Tamasha (12 megawatts) in Kargil. 

These projects are a big cause of concern for the authorities of Pakistan as it might affect the water sharing arrangements between the two nations. In fact, Pakistan has also raised objections to a few projects. In the recently concluded meeting in March, Pakistan has asked for technical details of all planned projects on the western rivers.

Earlier, Pakistan had challenged India’s 450-megawatts Baglihar power project on the Chenab River before the World Bank in 2005. The case was settled in the favor of India. In 2011, Pakistan approached the International Court of Arbitration, The Hague, over India’s 330-megawatts Kishanganga project on Jhelum River in Jammu and Kashmir. Court ended up allowing India to proceed with the project.  

In 2018, India had granted permission to Pakistan to inspect the Kishanganga project, a run-of-the-river hydroelectric scheme in Jammu and Kashmir. Reciprocating the same, Pakistan allowed Indian delegates to visit the Kotri Barrage over the Indus. Article VIII of the treaty provides for “cooperation in engineering works to serve the common interest”.

Another major issue with IWT has been its dispute redressal system. The treaty’s institutional dispute redressal system has failed to adjudicate on issues arising between the two nations due to water sharing arrangements. Most of the times these disputes have landed up in the international forums like International Court of Justice and World Bank, increasing the trust deficit on the over the treaty’s institutional mechanism to settle the issues.

Timeline of key events pertaining to IWT

1948: India cuts off supply in most canals that went to Pakistan, but restores it later

1951: Pakistan accuses India of cutting water to many of its villages

1954: Word Bank comes up with a water-sharing formula for two countries

1960: IWT signed

1970: India starts building hydropower projects in Kashmir. Pakistan raises concern

1984: Pakistan objects over India building Tulbul barrage on Jhelum 

2007: Pakistan raises concern over Kishanganga hydroelectric plant 

2008: Lashkar-e-Taiba starts campaign against India. Its chief Hafiz Saeed accuses India of water terrorism 

2010: Pakistan accuses India of choking water supply consistently 

2016: India reviews working of IWT linking it with cross-border terrorism (after the Uri attack)

Feb 2019: Regular meeting to review issues regarding IWT

March 2021: Regular meeting to review issues regarding IWT (after Pulwama attack)

Has the treaty ignored the concerns of climate change?

The 60 year old IWT has ignored the rising challenge of climate change and sustainability. As per a study, an increase in temperature has resulted in a sharp decrease of discharge in 23 of the 31 river basins, with “12 basins showing significant reductions”. Further, retreating glaciers have further exacerbated the problem of inadequate water availability. 

Experts have also been campaigning against the construction of large hydropower dams, especially in sensitive regions like J&K, as they are causing irreparable damage to Himalayan ecosystem.  

Can the countries revoke this treaty?

The treaty has no provision for either country unilaterally walking out of the pact. As per Article XII of the treaty IWT can only be revoked by another treaty, ratified by both the nations. If still India or Pakistan decides to unilaterally revoke the treaty, it has to be in accordance with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969.  

(Writer is a final year law student at UPES School of Law, Dehradun and a Contributor at TA. He tweets at @stoic_gautamkr)

Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Analysis (TA) is a research and communication group | Analyzing India’s legal, policy and political affairs. Write to us at contact@theanalysis.org.in

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