Going beyond the Indus Waters Treaty

Published: July 15, 2011
The writer is a research associate at the Development Policy Research Center at LUMS and is part of the LUMS Water Program.

The writer is a research associate at the Development Policy Research Center at LUMS and is part of the LUMS Water Program.

A typical newspaper article on the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) begins with explaining three or four essential elements of the treaty, pointing out a few cases in time where fingers have been pointed across the border, and then concludes on paranoid tones of a typical lower riparian. Cases such as the Baglihar and Kishanganga dams and the Wullar Barrage are cited time and time again. The end result is very monotonous; with the two nations not being able to reach an agreement. The dispute is then taken to the neutral expert and/or the Court of Arbitration. Although these issues may be important for Pakistan’s sustainability, it seems that the resulting discourses have left very little, if any, potential space for cooperation.

Some might argue that the IWT has performed very well between India and Pakistan for the past 50 years. It has survived three wars. However, there is an underlying reason why this treaty has been so popular on both sides. The treaty promotes passive aggressiveness between the two nations, which is precisely what the establishment requires to maintain its status quo. It creates fear among the Pakistani population, which is based on India ‘stealing our water’. The rhetoric becomes uncontrollable when it gets into the hands of non-state actors whose purpose is to depict India as having cruel intentions.

Similar to other phenomena in the world, change is the only constant in managing trans-boundary waters. Change management requires a shift in the paradigm: The way we understand the river basin, its people and their livelihood. Water is a finite, a freely flowing resource that should not be divided by geopolitical boundaries. A regional approach is required in maintaining the prosperity and dominance of the mighty Indus. Article VII of the IWT mentions ‘Future Cooperation’ which, inter alia, discusses efforts in the future to jointly optimise the potential of the Indus River system. Very little attention has been paid to the joint observation of discharge, seismicity etc and the potential joint engineering works to augment storage, produce power and better moderate floods.

Surely, a trust deficit exists between the two riparian. Experts suggest that advance information to the lower riparian (Pakistan) about planned interventions such as dams and barrages, and their timely filling, can bridge these issues. However, this seems hopelessly unlikely, given recent events such as the meeting on the Wullar Barrage where the Indian delegation walked out of the room in the middle of the session. We cannot depend on a few state actors to decide the fate of relations between the two countries, instead we should work towards track-II diplomacy. One area where collaborative work should be urgently undertaken is on ground-water aquifers, especially near the border areas of Pakistan and India. The IWT only considers sharing of surface water discharge from the rivers and overlooks groundwater abstraction. A study conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, using analysis from Nasa’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment found that the aquifers of Pakistan are going to be affected with the disproportionate abstraction of groundwater in India. It concludes that “the issue of trans-boundary groundwater with India has to be addressed and an addendum has to be negotiated between basin states for inclusion in the IWT.” The 1994 Israel-Jordan treaty can help us learn manageable ways of dealing with both ground and surface trans-boundary water.

First it was Kashmir, now it is water. The difference between Kashmir and the water issue is that the latter is an existential issue. Therefore, the consequence of bringing water to a pedestal on India-Pakistan relations can have devastating effects on regional security and prosperity. We need to work closely with our neighbours in order to share this resource, rather than divide it. I find it necessary to cite Ramaswamy Iyer’s (Indian water policy expert) view on the Alternative Water Policy — he states: “The best way of avoiding conflicts is for the upper riparian (India) to adopt a cautious and minimalist approach to such interventions, undertake them where absolutely necessary with due regard to the interests of the lower riparians (Pakistan), provide advance information to the latter about plans for intervention, consult them at all stages on possible impacts and take care to avoid significant harm or injury to them.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Feroz
    Jul 16, 2011 - 1:32AM

    Excellent article strong on facts and free of rhetoric. The Politicians will keep whipping up emotions on the Water issue to divert the public minds from focusing on pressing existential problems. Sending terrorists across the border I am quite sure is not the best way to negotiate the Water issue.


  • Mirza
    Jul 16, 2011 - 10:33AM

    This is right on the money. Pakistan needs to pay attention to this essential for life, rather than building more nuclear bombs. We need to utilize every resource possible and cooperate with India as much as possible. We have lived without Kashmir for over 60 year but we cannot live without water for 60 days.
    I am glad that the author has been honest and right on the target. India has been utilizing more and more water and we have been sitting on our hands and complaining. This is not a rocket science and we can learn from many other countries that face these situations, like you quoted the example of Israel and Jordan.
    Thanks a lot for bringing this out for discussion. However, I am saddened by the lack of reader’s response on this most important need of Pakistan and its future. This lack of direction and then complaining after the fact is the main reason Pakistan is where it is now. It is only in Pakistan that the true patriots are called names like traitors or enemy, for giving advance warning of coming disaster.


  • Ba Ha
    Jul 16, 2011 - 11:46AM

    Ayub Khan signed the Indus basin treaty because the Americans told him the Indians will attack you if you don’t. He got F86 and Patton tanks as a bonus. The problems with Treaties is that they are signed to make everything static. But the process they make static is not so. Unless India and Pakistan decide to remain flexible on this issue a War is inevitable. The upper catchment areas must be made a politics free area, where the only issue should be to keep the water flowing. Its for everyone’s good.


  • Manoj
    Jul 16, 2011 - 1:45PM

    @Ba Ha:

    “a War is inevitable”

    every now and then we get the above warning from Pak citizen on almost every issue of dispute some real and some cooked up.

    May I request you, unless you rule out war from your mind, you will not be able to put your best to negotiated settlement, which will bring prosperity to both the nations.

    Unfortunately, due to soaked haterd towards India, Pak citizens are more inclined to think solving the dispute thru war and it resulted in four war between two countries, huge loss to economy of the both nations and we remained a backward nations where as countries devasted in WW-II marched forward like Japan, Germany, all EU nations etc. this hapened because they saw the devastating impact of WW-II and ruled out war alltogether as a method of dispute resolution.


  • DG
    Jul 16, 2011 - 3:43PM

    The fact that Pakistan has not gone overboard with this agreement unlike the ones on the Kashmir shows that India has not deviated any or much from the agreed line. Some of their concerns have been taken care of bilaterally and some through arbritrator. Again perfection is an illusive goal.

    However the author is right on dot about the importance of water vis-a-vis the emotional issue of Kashmir. Perhaps lower level of mistrusts and better environment building will be key to joint mechanisms.

    Ofcourse in today’s technologically driven world and the data support from China, Pakistan should have all the data required for the assessment of the activities in terms of dam, discharge, flow, sesmic, etc right from the source of the rivers.

    But again my question would be “Is Pakistan doing enough to utilise the water it is receiving ?”

    “How is the water management in Pakistan ?”

    The more we depend on others, the more controls we give to others to make us happy or unhappy. Mostly it is unhappy. So as far as possible we should try to be self reliant.

    I believe in most of the aspects of the Governance of Pakistan, they are more eager to be dependent on others.


  • G. Din
    Jul 16, 2011 - 3:57PM

    You have inflicted four wars on India and you were routed in each one of them. But if, after “solving” Kashmir issue to your satisfaction by those wars, you believe that you can solve the water problem to your satisfaction by threatening another war, bring it on! There is no one in India that is bothered overly too much by those threats.
    Indus treaty was signed when Jawaharlal Nehru strode like a colossus on the Indian subcontinent. He could, by his charisma, ram anything down the throat of India. He is no more and those days have also passed into history. There is a considerable body of opinion in India which is calling for the abrogation of this treaty. Under the circumstances what, pray, is the chance of any agreement on aquifers? None, that I can see!


  • Anuj
    Jul 16, 2011 - 4:19PM

    @ Ba Ha:
    ” a war is inevitable”
    But after the war, pakistan would not need water…..you lost all the wars, still keep on dreaming about another war……


  • bijon SHAH
    Jul 16, 2011 - 4:40PM

    I dont think there is anything wrong with current constructions of the dams as far it is under the framework of iwt.i am sure we indians are legally conscious and correct in these cases.


  • sanjithmenon
    Jul 16, 2011 - 10:02PM

    maximum exploitation within the letter of the IWT thats indias theory. The exploitation happens on the water quantum available at the time of signing the treaty. The climate changes that have happened is not taken into consideration. In the end why? should we? Just imagine if Pakistan was the upper riparian? ha ha ha aha ha aha ha .


  • Noor
    Jul 16, 2011 - 11:05PM

    The Indus water treaty is essentially based on sound and equitable arguments.
    India and Pakistan bartered away the rivers based upon mutual convenience.
    However, the treaty completely ignores the needs and the rights of the people of Jammu And Kashmir.
    Depriving the people of Kashmir of their Hydrowater potential and its attendant benefits is a travesty.

    The people of Kashmir need to be duly compensated by both governments for the said reasons.


  • Jamil Khan
    Jul 18, 2011 - 11:31AM

    Hello Maaz, Its nice to see you involved in such an important matter of national concern. I wish you all the best.What you need to do is to dig deep inside to identify the core problems of this issue, dissect and examine to clearly identify the problems and enable the concerned people to be able to think of the real solutions that could help to table the issues to possibly resolve this complex matter.


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