The Indus Water Treaty


The ‘non-military preemptive’ strike carried out by India is the culmination of a long-advocated line of action to eliminate the menace of terrorism. Another measure, proposed on the economic front, is to stop the supply of India’s share of water from the Indus river system.

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), an over-50-year-old agreement between India and Pakistan, deals with sharing of water of six rivers flowing from India into Pakistan. These are Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum (the “western” rivers) and Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej (the “eastern” rivers). Despite the classification, all these rivers flow from North India to Pakistan, running almost parallel for some distance. However, none of them originates in India but in Tibet, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas. Before meeting the Arabian Sea in Pakistan, all of them merge into the Indus — making it the largest of all; and giving the treaty its name.
The estimated average annual flow in the western rivers is about 166 km3, while the corresponding figure for the eastern rivers is about 41 km3 (1 km3 is equal to about 114,000 m3 per hour of water flow).

Before Partition, almost all of the water from these rivers used to flow towards Pakistan; while after Partition, claim on this water became open. Post the initial years of temporary arrangement, during which both the parties were not satisfied — and after a grueling nine-year negotiation brokered by the World Bank — an agreement was reached in September, 1960, as per which, usage of water was divided into two categories: consumptive and non-consumptive. Non-consumptive use refers to purposes such as generation of power, navigation, fishing, etc.

As per the agreement, India got the right to use water from the eastern rivers for consumption, whereas water from the western rivers was for Pakistan. This meant a 20:80 sharing between India and Pakistan. However, India was given the right to use water from western rivers for non-consumptive purposes, most important of which was generation of power. Some amount of water was also available to India for irrigation.

The treaty also envisaged constitution of a permanent water commission, which would be given the right to visit the other country’s facilities once in five years. Incidentally, members from Pakistan visited the Indian side of the Indus water system very recently in January.

The treaty also specified a 10-year transition period, during which India was required to supply water from the eastern rivers also to Pakistan. This was incorporated to allow Pakistan to build adequate facilities, dams, canals, etc., so that areas supplied by eastern rivers could also be connected with the western ones.

This made sense, as the volume of water in the western rivers was sufficient to meet the needs. Almost two-thirds of Pakistan now lies in the basin of the Indus water system. While India had the right to use this water after the transition period, it did not build sufficient dams, canal system, etc., in its territory to divert the water flow. India is using only about 94% of its share. In this context, in December 2018, the government had approved one of the projects that was under planning for over a decade. However, it would still take another 3–4 years before the project is completed.

While the stoppage of water supply after such a long period is certain to meet with lot of resistance, a clause in the agreement gives India the freedom to do so. The clause specifically states that no country can claim right over the other’s share, even if the other country is not using its share fully. It is this clause that India would use even though Pakistan has been receiving India’s share of water for decades.

While the impact may not be too heavy, but it cannot be ignored, either.

Ashish Agrawal
Founder, India Business Analysis | IIT Roorkee, IIM-C alumnus