Indus Waters Treaty

Context: The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), facilitated by the World Bank, is a landmark transboundary water-sharing mechanism between India and Pakistan. But disagreements persist.

In an unprecedented move, India called for amendments to the agreement last year due to its dissatisfaction with the dispute resolution process. It blamed Pakistan’s continued “intransigence” in implementing the treaty — particularly its material breach. Pakistan sought arbitration at The Hague for resolution of its differences and objections over India’s Kishenganga and Ratle hydroelectric projects, bypassing the treaty-compliant Neutral Expert proceedings.

This topic is crucial for the understanding of India-Pakistan Relations under GS II.

General Studies- II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.

  • India and its neighbourhood- relations.

Hence in the ensuing discussion we are going to understand:

  • Geographical locations (Rivers)
  • The need for a treaty
  • Mains provisions of the treaty
  • Current challenges with the treaty
  • Way forward

Indus Water Treaty Explained

    Indus Waters Treaty, treaty, signed on September 19, 1960, between India and Pakistan and brokered by the World Bank. The treaty fixed and delimited the rights and obligations of both countries concerning the use of the waters of the Indus River system.

Indus Water Treaty Explained

The Need for water sharing:

  • Geographical Context:
    • The waters of the Indus system of rivers begin mainly in Tibet and the Himalayan mountains in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. They flow through the states of Punjab and Sindh before emptying into the Arabian Sea south of Karachi and Kori Creek in Gujarat.
  • Partition Impact
    • The partition of British India, based on religion not on geography basis, created a conflict over the waters of the Indus basin. The newly formed states were at odds over how to share and manage what was essentially a cohesive and unitary network of irrigation.
    • Furthermore, the geography of partition was such that the source rivers of the Indus basin were in India. Pakistan felt its livelihood threatened by the prospect of Indian control over the tributaries that fed water into the Pakistani portion of the basin. Where India certainly had its own ambitions for the profitable development of the basin, Pakistan felt acutely threatened by a conflict over the main source of water for its cultivable land.
  • Agriculture Dominance:
    • Irrigation and cultivation in the Indus plains are central to both economies. The Indus is responsible for over 90 per cent of Pakistan’s agricultural output and accounts for 25 per cent of the GDP. Given the ballooning population and corresponding consumption, deteriorating water quality poses an additional threat to food and nutritional security, human health and biodiversity.

Sharing of water (Treaty):

  • Eastern rivers: Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej were allocated to India for unrestricted use.
  • Western rivers: Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab were allocated largely to Pakistan. India is permitted certain agricultural uses and can build ‘run of the river’ hydropower projects with limited storage.
  • Permanent Indus Commission (PIC): Commissioners are appointed by both countries for cooperation and information exchange regarding their use of the rivers.
  • The treaty provides a 3-tier dispute resolution mechanism:
    • PIC is the first stage.
    • A neutral expert is the second stage.
    • The Court of Arbitration is the third stage.
  • IWT does not have a unilateral exit provision: The treaty is supposed to remain in force unless both countries ratify another mutually agreed pact.


  • Dissatisfaction over water apportionment: There is long lasting dissatisfaction in India because 80% of the water is allocated to Pakistan.
  • Suboptimal data sharing: Diplomatic tensions lead to suboptimal data sharing, and the quality of shared data is often questioned. There is no mechanism for the research community to access this data.
  • Ambiguous and room for conflict: The technical nature of the treaty and the fact that the western rivers flow through the conflicted region of Jammu and Kashmir pave the way for conflict. Perceived impacts of infrastructure development on downstream flows, and Pakistan’s concerns as a lower riparian state.
  • Changing realities such as climate change also fuel the need for amending the treaty.
    • In 2015, the Indus basin was ranked by NASA as the world’s second most over-stressed aquifer. An estimated 31 per cent of the net basin flow originates from climate-impacted glaciers and snow melts, making mean annual flows more volatile and seasonal. Other factors like unpredictable monsoons also contribute to increased variability of flow volume.
  • Lack of mutual trust: There is a lack of trust-building mechanisms between India and Pakistan. Perceived impacts of infrastructure development on downstream flows, and Pakistan’s concerns as a lower riparian state.
    • A recent case in point is Pakistan’s accusation of “water terrorism” against India for the Shahpurkandi barrage project. But Ravi’s water-flow from India into Pakistan is not substantial in the first place, and the dam would streamline the river’s flow — as legally permitted within the IWT — to support power supply and agricultural growth in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.
  • Limited role of the Guarantor: In disputes like those involving the Krishanganga and Ratle Hydroelectric Projects, the World Bank had to appoint the Neutral Expert and chairman of the CoA simultaneously. This concurrent appointment poses practical and legal risks. Moreover, the World Bank lacks the power to decide which one should take precedence.
  • Lack of adequate environmental safeguards: The treaty lacks sufficient provisions to protect the environment.

To resolve these conflicts:

  • It’s essential to view the Indus river system as a cohesive geographical unit, benefiting all stakeholders.
  • An ecological perspective should be integrated into the governance framework of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), including the institutionalization of Environmental Flows (EF).
    • According to the Brisbane Declaration (2018), EFs are necessary to sustain aquatic ecosystems, which support human cultures and economies. Harmonizing EFs with the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention principles—equitable use and prevention of transboundary harm—is crucial.
  • International customary law, such as the 2004 Berlin Rules on Water Resources, also emphasizes sustainability and ecological flows. The 2013 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s verdict on India’s Kishanganga project underscores the obligation to release EFs in transboundary basins, setting a precedent for similar cases.
  • Ratification of the UN Water Convention to ensure the sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating cooperation.
  • Promoting open data policy encouraging open data policies to international supervisory bodies and other stakeholders to promote transparency and applied scientific research.
  • Both countries should undertake joint research on the rivers to study the impact of climate change for future cooperation, as underlined in Article VII of the IWT.

Additionally, a nuanced understanding of climate change and population pressures on the Indus basin’s hydrology is needed. This includes developing a robust mechanism for real-time data-sharing between India and Pakistan, supervised by the World Bank, to ensure accountability and enhance policy-making. Recognizing climate change as a shared vulnerability and focusing on holistic basin management will strengthen the IWT, improving India-Pakistan relations and serving as a model for global transboundary climate cooperation.

Mains PYQ: 2016

Q. Present an account of the Indus Water Treaty and examine its ecological, economic and political implications in the context of changing bilateral relations.

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