The Indus Waters Treaty: Negotiation, Implementation, New Challenges, and Future Prospects

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Shafqat Kakakhel[1]


(This paper seeks to probe the genesis of the water dispute between India and Pakistan, focusing on post-partition developments, the nearly decade-long negotiations brokered by the World Bank, culminating in the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in September 1960 and to review the implementation of the Treaty. It refers to the new and emerging challenges to water security in India and Pakistan and the efficacy of the Treaty in addressing them. The paper concludes by offering a summary of suggestions on co-operation between the two countries. – Author)

Introduction 1.1.

The Indus River Basin is ‘one of the most important water systems in Asia. The Indus River originates in China on the Tibetan Plateau and runs for 3,200 kilometres across northern India and Jammu and Kashmir and the length of Pakistan before emptying into the Arabian Sea near Karachi…While the Indus system counts 27 major tributaries, the six most significant branches–the Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, Jhelum, Beas, and the Indus itself–flow west through India and Kashmir before crossing into Pakistan. A seventh major tributary, the Kabul River, rises in Afghanistan and flows east into Pakistan. All told, the Indus River Basin encompasses 1.12 million square kilometres (km2), with 47 per cent of this area falling in Pakistan, 39 per cent in India (and Kashmir), 8 per cent in China, and 6 per cent in Afghanistan. In turn, 65 per cent of the total area of Pakistan, 14 per cent of the Indian land mass, 11 per cent in Afghanistan, and 1 per cent of China’s land lie within the Indus Basin. Pakistan draws 63 per cent of the water used in the basin; India’s share is 36 per cent.’ Pakistan’s dependence on the Indus is critical and total, especially for its agriculture which continues to be the backbone of its economy, contributing over 21 per cent of the GDP, 45 per cent of all jobs, and 80 per cent of the raw material for its agro-based industry. The Indus River System is indeed the life-line of the country.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) signed by India and Pakistan on 19 September 1960 defines their rights and obligations in respect of the six rivers of the Indus River System. The Treaty has been acclaimed as the most successful example of conflict avoidance and dispute settlement in the six and a half decades of the troubled relations between the two neighboring south Asian countries and ‘is widely and correctly considered to be the most important water treaty in the world, and has endured despite 50 years of hostility between India and Pakistan’. The IWT has also been described as ‘one of the few examples of a successful settlement of a major international river basin conflict’ and as ‘a successful instance of conflict resolution between two countries that have otherwise been locked in conflict’. However, in recent years the IWT has come under strain, mainly due to scarcity of water and concerns in Pakistan over Indian hydroelectric projects on the western rivers.

This paper seeks to probe the genesis of the water dispute between India and Pakistan, focusing on post-partition developments, the nearly decade-long negotiations brokered by the World Bank, culminating in the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in September 1960 and to review the implementation of the Treaty. It refers to the new and emerging challenges to water security in India and Pakistan and the efficacy of the Treaty in addressing them. The paper concludes by offering a summary of suggestions on co-operation between the two countries.

1.2.      Background

The British Raj had built an extensive network of canals, creating the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. At Partition in 1947, the boundaries between the two countries, in disregard of hydrology, placed the headworks of the canals in India, although 80 per cent of the areas irrigated by them were in Pakistan, making India the upper riparian and Pakistan the lower in the Indus Basin. Engineers from the two halves of Punjab, having failed to work out a durable water sharing deal, signed a ‘Standstill Agreement’ to maintain the status quo and referring outstanding differences to the Arbitral Commission which was mandated to address disputes over resources.

The first Indo-Pakistan water dispute broke out on 1 April 1948, when East Punjab cut off water supplies to the canals crossing into Pakistan. This unilateral termination of water supplies by India, despite assurances of ‘no interference whatsoever with the then existing flow of water’, caused ‘acute distress’ in Pakistani Punjab. ‘The sense of insecurity and vulnerability that this interruption caused in Pakistan as a lower riparian became a permanent part of the Pakistani psyche, and continues to influence thinking even today.’

Canal water to West Punjab was restored on 30 April 1948 and an ‘Agreement on the Canal Water Dispute’ was signed at an inter-dominion conference on 4 May 1948, which recognized East Punjab’s right to progressively reduce water supplies to West Punjab, in order to develop its water-scarce areas. Pakistan agreed to make payments for operation and maintenance of water supply headworks, but disputed East Punjab’s claim to proprietary rights over the water. Soon, the legal status of the document signed on 4 May 1948 became a contentious issue. India insisted that it was a ‘treaty’, but Pakistan asserted that it was a ‘statement’ which the head of its delegation was forced to sign, ‘without changing a word or a comma–as a pre-condition for restoring the flow of water’.  As later recalled by a World Bank official, ‘With millions of people facing loss of their herds, the ruin of their crops and eventual starvation from lack of water, Pakistan was under compulsion to accept whatever India proposed’. Several rounds of bilateral meetings held between July 1948 and May 1950 did not make any headway in resolving outstanding issues. Pakistan formally terminated the Agreement of 4 May 1948 and proposed that the dispute be referred to the International Court of Justice. India declined.

1.3.      The Indus Waters Treaty Negotiations

In 1951, David Lilienthal, former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), visited India and Pakistan, commissioned by Collier’s magazine. In his article captioned ‘Another Korea in the Making’, published by Colliers in August 1951, he warned that ’Pakistan could be   devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the source of waters’. Arguing that ‘an early solution of the water problem could reduce the threat of war over Kashmir and accelerate development of the region’, Lilienthal suggested ‘joint use of this truly international river basin’ through the building of greater storage facilities and a co-operative management of water resources by India and Pakistan. He also alluded to the possibility of the World Bank funding the work of an Indus Engineering Corporation, comprising representatives of India, Pakistan, and the Bank to undertake the necessary engineering works for the optimum utilization of the water resources of the Indus Basin.

Eugene Black, the World Bank President, was impressed by Lilienthal’s ideas and in September 1951 wrote to the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, ‘offering the Bank’s good offices for discussions of the Indus water dispute and negotiation of a settlement’. Black’s offer was predicated on acceptance by the two countries of three ‘essential principles’, namely:

  • The Indus Basin’s resources are sufficient to continue all existing uses and to meet future needs;
  • The water resources  should be co-operatively developed and used in such a manner as to most effectively promote the economic development of the Indus Basin viewed as a unit; and
  • The problem of development and use of the Indus Basin water resources should be solved on a functional and not a political plan, without relations to past negotiations and past claims, and independently of political issues.

The World Bank suggested that a Working Group consisting of an engineer appointed by each country to jointly prepare a comprehensive long-range plan for the integrated management of the Indus Basin. A World Bank-appointed engineer would serve as an impartial adviser during the initial phase, but he would not act as an arbiter. The Bank would act as a ‘post office’ for both sides. Eugene Black visited India and Pakistan and got the Prime Ministers of both countries to accept his proposals in March 1952. It was agreed that water supplies to Pakistan for existing uses would be maintained during the discussion on long-term co-operation.

The Working Group failed to negotiate a long-term plan.  The World Bank then suggested that each side present its version of a plan. They did so in October 1953.The Pakistani plan dealt only with its part of the Basin, but ‘it effectively took all the water’, being based on a continuation of the status quo. The Indian plan claimed for itself all the water of the three eastern rivers (Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi) plus 7 per cent of the western rivers. In February 1954, the Bank offered its own plan in order to overcome the impasse. It comprised three elements: (a) historic withdrawals must be continued, but not necessarily from the same sources; (b) the three eastern rivers were assigned to India and the three western rivers to Pakistan; (c) Pakistan would have a transition period of five years to construct link canals to allow replacement of water supplies from the eastern rivers. The issue of storage reservoirs in Pakistan was not addressed. The Bank’s proposal clearly showed that it had abandoned the goal of integrated development of the waters of the Indus Basin initially suggested by it and instead opted for a ‘partition’ of the rivers.

India accepted the Bank plan in March 1954. Pakistan found itself in ‘an intolerable position’, because the Bank plan did not envisage any storage dam and instead it had asserted that ‘even without further storage construction…Pakistan could supply her historic withdrawals and could bring most of the Sutlej Valley canals up to allocation from the flows of the western rivers’.  Accordingly, in May 1954, Pakistan stated that, ‘while it was in accord with the principles, the plan does not meet the test of fairness laid down by the Bank’. It made ‘vigorous representations to the Bank’ against the allocation of the eastern rivers to India and argued that the supplies from the western rivers were inadequate to replace Pakistan’s existing uses of the water from the eastern rivers. ‘The Bank stood firmly behind its plan and Pakistan continued to press its case for fairness.’ India issued an ultimatum to Pakistan that unless it accepted the Bank’s plan, the co-operative arrangements agreed in 1952–referring to water supplies–would lapse in June 1954.

Pakistan accepted the Bank’s proposals in principle in July 1954 but added its ‘understanding’ that it would be possible to effect ‘reasonable adjustments’. India responded favourably and asked the Bank to clarify some aspects of the plan and to send its representatives to the sub-continent to negotiate an agreement. An independent engineering appraisal, commissioned by the World Bank in response to Pakistan’s concerns, corroborated Pakistan’s apprehensions. The evaluation ‘found that the Bank’s 1951 principle that … there was sufficient flowing water for the future needs of the Indus Basin was unsound’. It stated that, ‘Pakistan would be adversely affected by the Bank plan (as) certain areas would be permanently deprived of water supplies; historic withdrawals would not be maintained, pre-Partition planned uses would be invaded; and Pakistan’s future development potential would be seriously curtailed’.

In December 1954, President Black sent detailed Terms of Reference (TOR) to India and Pakistan for the next round of negotiations, which accommodated Pakistan’s concerns and promised that, ‘if flow supplies are inadequate (taking into account inter-linked canals) the plan will outline the feasible means that might be adopted to meet any deficiencies’, thereby paving the way for storage reservoirs. In August 1955, the Bank asked India and Pakistan to develop plans allowing for storage reservoirs.  An aide memoire issued by the Bank in May 1956 recognized Pakistan’s limited storage and the need for the maximum utilization of the waters of the western rivers. Pakistan agreed and ‘turned its attention from the eastern rivers and concentrated on maximizing the potential of the western rivers’. This alarmed India, which was expected to contribute toward meeting the cost of Pakistan’s storage projects, and it conveyed its concern to the Bank. Subsequently, Eugene Black undertook a resource mobilization drive, including through personal visits to countries that might provide funds.  The potential donors insisted on a comprehensive plan agreed on by the parties. The  plans developed by India and Pakistan being ‘increasingly divergent in terms of scale and cost’, the Bank developed a compromise plan which accepted Pakistan’s plea, whilst promising that India’s financial liability for the storage works in Pakistan would be ‘manageable’.

President Black and his deputy visited the two countries in May 1959 during which they presented the World Bank’s proposal in the form of a draft ‘Heads of Agreement’, stipulating:

  • Division of waters as in the Bank proposal of 1954;
  • A system of replacement and development works in Pakistan without Indian participation and agreement;
  • A ten-year transition period and some additional Indian withdrawals;
  • An ad hoc but fixed financial contribution by India; and
  • An Indus Basin Development Fund to be established and administered by the Bank.

In August 1959, President Black was able to convince the US, Canada, the UK, West Germany, Australia, and New Zealand to underwrite a water settlement costing USD 1.0 billion.  A supplementary provided an additional USD 315 million to Pakistan. This opened the way for negotiations between engineers from India and Pakistan, with the active participation of experts from the World Bank.

The fourth and final draft of the Indus Waters Treaty was completed in was prepared by August 1960 and the treaty was signed on 19 September 1960 in Karachi by Prime Minister Nehru and President Ayub Khan.

1.4.      The Indus Waters Treaty: Key Features

The documents constituting the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) comprise a preamble and 12 articles of the treaty and eight (A-H) Annexures. The Treaty has five main elements. The first relates to the division of the Indus and its five major tributaries. All the waters of the three eastern rivers–the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi–shall be available to India (Article 2) and Pakistan shall receive ‘for unrestricted use all those waters of the western rivers (the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) which India is under obligation to let flow’. India shall …’let flow all the waters of the western rivers’ and shall not permit any interference with these waters except for certain uses, namely, domestic use, non-consumptive use; agricultural use; and generation of hydro-electric power. The Treaty imposes restrictions on the agricultural uses and hydro-electric power generation which are stipulated in Annexures C and D. India shall not store any water of, or construct any storage works on, the western rivers. Article 4 of the Treaty and Annexures C, D, and E list the conditions under which India’s uses from the western rivers are to be ensured.

The second main element is the arrangements for financing the building of the ‘replacement works’ (Tarbela Dam on the Indus and Mangla on the Jhelum) and eight link canals which were needed to store and transport water from the western rivers to the areas which had hitherto been irrigated from the eastern rivers ‘assigned’ to India under the Treaty. India was to contribute an amount of Pounds Sterling 62,060,000 toward the financing of the replacement works. The financing arrangements were a decisive factor in the success of the negotiations. Pakistan would not have agreed to the Treaty of the three eastern rivers in the absence of funds for the construction of the dams and link canals for the storage and transportation of waters of the western rivers to compensate for the loss of the eastern rivers.

The third main element of the IWT relates to the uses of the waters of the western rivers by India for hydro-electric power generation before the rivers enter Pakistan; this was one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations.  Pakistani negotiators sought to ensure that the hydropower projects and agricultural uses of India would not reduce the supply of water to Pakistan. The restrictive conditions stipulated in the lengthy Annexures C, D, and E of the Treaty were meant to assuage Pakistan’s concerns.

The fourth main element of the IWT is the institutional arrangements for maintaining communications on a regular basis between India and Pakistan on all matters addressed in the Treaty. Article 8 established a Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), comprising ‘a Commissioner for Indus Waters appointed by each country, who would ordinarily be a high-ranking engineer, competent in the field of hydrology and water use’. The Commission is to serve ‘as the regular channel of communication on all matters pertaining to the implementation of the Treaty’, and ‘promote co-operation between the Parties in the development of the waters of the Rivers…’ Further, The Commission shall try to settle promptly to resolve any question relating to the implementation of the Treaty.

The fifth element is the mechanism for resolving issues and disputes related to the implementation of the IWT. Questions raised by either Party are to be resolved by the Commission. If the ‘questions’ turn into ‘differences’ essentially of a technical nature, they can be referred to a Neutral Expert, whose findings are final and binding on both Parties. The second kind of arbitration is a Court of Arbitration for resolving disputes. The procedure for the establishment of the court of arbitration is given in the annexes of the IWT.

The IWT provided for transitional arrangements in Annex H, pertaining to the supply of the waters of the eastern rivers to Pakistan for a period of ten years from 1 April 1960 to 31 March 1970 according to a detailed schedule. The Treaty also provides for ‘exchange of data’ in respect of the flow in, and utilization of, the waters of the rivers and withdrawals from the canals, as well as any data relating to the hydrology of the rivers, canals, or reservoirs  sought by either party, provided the data is available. Further, the Treaty provides for ‘future co-operation’ between the Parties for the optimum development of the rivers, including engineering works, provided they do not interfere with the waters of the rivers.

1.5.      Implementation of the Indus Waters Treaty

The first issue over the implementation of the IWT arose in the 1970s when India planned the building of a hydropower project on the Chenab for producing 690 MW electricity and irrigating large areas in East Punjab. In 1974, Pakistan formally objected to the design of the dam and the storage on the ground that it was in violation of the Treaty. After the Permanent Indus Commission failed to resolve the issue, India and Pakistan held a series of talks in 1976, leading to an agreement by India to change the design of the dam in order to allay Pakistan’s concern. In April 1978, an agreement was signed, enabling the unhindered completion of the project. This is the only dispute which was settled without recourse to arbitration.

The second dispute relates to the construction of a barrage on the Jhelum River at the mouth of the Wullar Lake, some 30 kilometres north of Srinagar. The original design provided for the construction of a 134 metre long and 12 metre wide barrage, with a storage capacity of 300.000 acre feet of water. India started the construction of the barrage in 1984. Pakistan received information about the project in 1985 and submitted a complaint to the Indus Commission in 1986-87, saying the project would create storage exceeding the limit set in the IWT and called on India to stop construction activity. India suspended the construction. More than a dozen rounds of official talks held during the late 1980s and 1990-91 failed to resolve the issue, although some headway was made on certain technical aspects.  India claimed that its project was not only meant to generate electricity (around 450 MW) but also to regulate water release from the lake to the river, in order to ensure year-round navigation  for transporting people and goods between Anantnag and  Srinagar and  Baramulla; they called it the Tulbul Navigation Project.

The Kashmiri uprising in the early 1990s seems to have impeded the construction work.  In August 2007, it was agreed to convene meetings between technical experts to work out a solution.  In May 2011, in the first round of talks in Islamabad, the Water Secretaries of the two countries discussed the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation project. India agreed to provide additional data and information. However, at the next meeting of the Water Secretaries held in end March 2012, Pakistan stated that the data shared by the Indian side was incomplete. The Pakistan Indus Commissioner visited the project site in May 2013. There are indications that some adjustments to the design of the barrage would facilitate an agreement on the project.

The third Indian project is the 450 MW hydroelectric project on the Chenab at Baglihar, upstream from the Salal dam. Construction work on the project began in 1999. Pakistan claimed that the project design violated the IWT because the dam included low-gated spillways which would increase the manipulable storage beyond the limit permissible under the Treaty. India explained that the gated spillways were needed to prevent the filling of the reservoir with silt, as had happened in the case of the Salal dam. Discussions between the Indus Commissioners and water resources Secretaries from 2001-4 having failed to reach an agreement, in January 2005 it was agreed to seek arbitration by a Neutral Expert (NE) in accordance with the IWT.

The neutral expert’s verdict, issued in 2007, rejected Pakistan’s objections and upheld the necessity of the gated spillways and the placement of the spillways below the dead storage level, arguing that such placement of the spillways was a global best practice for sediment control. The verdict allowed India to draw water out of the dam at levels lower than those specified in the Treaty. The verdict disregarded Pakistan’s concern regarding India acquiring the capacity to manipulate the timing and flows into Pakistan.  The NE’s decision caused ‘a great deal of dissatisfaction in Pakistan’. The verdict was a ‘blow’ for Pakistan because it ‘reinterpreted’ the IWT.  The verdict proclaimed that the Treaty ‘did not bind India to 1960 technology and that India could use state-of-the-art technology’. In Pakistan’s view, the NE’s verdict ‘seemed to weaken the protection against possible flooding’.

Pakistani media and experts welcomed the comments of noted expert, Professor John Briscoe, that the NE had indeed argued that ‘the IWT had a provision for updating the implementation of the Treaty as new knowledge accumulated …’ and proceeded to allow India to ‘draw water out of the dam at lower levels than those specified in the treaty’. Briscoe had also referred to the new meanings given by the NE to ‘live storage’ and ‘dead storage’, which were central to Pakistan’s historic and persistent concerns regarding India’s capability to manipulate water flows into Pakistan. The Baglihar project was officially commissioned on 10 October 2008 after India carried out the changes suggested by the NE in the design of the project.

The filling of the Baglihar reservoir in August 2008 provoked a new controversy. Under the IWT, such filling of reservoirs on the Chenab has to be carried out on mutually agreed dates during the period 21 June–,31 August when the monsoon is at its peak, so that the stoppage of water flow does not hurt Pakistan’s crops.  Pakistan alleged that the filling had continued beyond 31 August in violation of the IWT, causing a loss of 2,000,000 acre feet of water needed for its rice and wheat crops and demanded compensation.  India rejected Pakistan’s claims pertaining to timing and compensation. The subject was reportedly raised by the President and Prime Ministers of Pakistan with the Indian Prime Ministers and the two sides had agreed to settle the issue through talks in the framework of the IWT. In the event, the differences were resolved in June 2010 at a meeting of the PIC at which ‘India gave the assurance that it will be careful in future’, which Pakistan ‘accepted …in a spirit of co-operation and goodwill’.

The 900MW Kishenganga Hydro-Electric Project (KHEP) is thus far the most complex contentious project built by India on a western river (Jhelum), which was contested by Pakistan in view of its alleged violation of the IWT, and was resolved by the decision of a Court of Arbitration on 20 December 2013. The project – for utilizing the water of the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Jhelum, which is called the Neelum when it enters Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir – envisages the construction of a 180.05 metre long and 35.48 metre high concrete dam. The water of the Kishenganga River is to be diverted through a 24 kilometre long tunnel to a tributary of the river called BunarMadumatiNulla, which will be re-routed to the Jhelum through the Wullar Lake. The initial design of the project prepared in 2004 was that of storage-cum-hydro-electric project (under Annex E of the IWT). In June 2004 Pakistan raised objections to the design of the project, claiming that the inter-tributary transfer of water constituted violation of the IWT, and that the project would adversely affect agriculture and a 900MW hydro-electric project being built in Azad Kashmir called the Neelum-Jhelum Hydro- Electric Project (NJHP). Differences could not be resolved during half a dozen meetings of the PIC held in 2004-5. In April 2006, India re-configured the design for a run-of-the-river plant under Annex D of the IWT. In June 2006, Pakistan again objected to the design and sent its views in August 2006. After three inconclusive meetings of the Indus Commission from May 2007 to July 2008, in May 2010 the dispute was referred to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in accordance with Annexure G of the Treaty.

Pakistan sought decisions by the PCA on two questions: whether the inter-tributary diversion of water was in keeping with the IWT, and whether India could build a dam reservoir below the Dead Storage Level (DSL)–,which the IWT treaty had forbidden except in the case of an unforeseen emergency. Clearly, Pakistan was trying to get a reversal of the decision of the NE which had upheld such depletion with a view to preventing the disruption of water supplies during the months-long filling of the reservoir. The PCA decided that KHEP being a run-of-the-river project was allowed by the IWT, which also permitted inter-tributary diversion, so long as the water–after use for the hydropower plant–is restored to the river flowing into Pakistan. The Court ‘explicitly stated that the Baglihar ruling (allowing the placement of low spillway gates below the DSL) did not constitute a precedent, and implied that the Baglihar Neutral Expert had erred by not balancing engineering concerns with the diplomatic and security factors which were the heart of the IWT’. However, it did not accept Pakistan’s claim that the KHEP would adversely affect existing agricultural and hydropower uses in Pakistan because, in its view, during the critical years (2004-6), India had demonstrated a serious intent to build the KHEP but Pakistan had not done so. The Court upheld the need for adequate environmental flows which had not been addressed by the IWT. After taking into account the divergent estimates of minimum flow of water proposed by India and Pakistan below the KHEP, the Court decided on a flow of 9 cubic metres or CUMECS.

The PCA Award, which an eminent expert has hoped ‘should mean a new dawn for water management in the Indus’, addresses the main concerns of both India and Pakistan, which explains the muted reaction to it in both countries. India can proceed to build and operate the KHEP. However, it cannot deplete the water of the reservoir of any future hydropower plant below the DSL. The power generation capacities of both the KHEP and the NJHP plants would reportedly suffer losses of around 10 per cent. The recognition of the concept of environmental flows in rivers by the PCA to ensure that hydropower projects are operated in an environmentally sustainable manner will strengthen Pakistan’s case for environmental flows in the eastern rivers for alleviating the environmental damage caused by India’s diversion of all their flows to the east.

Pakistan has reportedly raised objections to the designs of a large number of Indian hydropower projects, including the 850 MW Ratle Hydro-Electric Project; the 48 MW Lower Kalnai Hydro-Electric Project,  the 120 MW Miyar hydropower project on the Chenab, as well as the 1000MW PakalDul plant being built on the Marusadar river, a tributary of the Jhelum. Pakistani media frequently reports news about Indian hydropower projects, highlighting India’s enhanced capability to use the cumulative storage to turn off supplies to Pakistan during the planting season, which would threaten its economy. Unless India and Pakistan agree on measures that would help in resolving them through the PIC or higher level dialogue, the disputes over Indian projects on the western rivers would have to be submitted to arbitration.

1.6.      New and Emerging Challenges and the Way Forward

The IWT has survived three Indo-Pakistan wars (in 1965, 1971, and 1991) and the vicissitudes in the troubled relationship between the two neighbors. However, concerns over reduction in the availability and deterioration of the quality of freshwater caused by population growth, urbanization, industrial and agricultural practices, and policy and institutional weaknesses have grown exponentially in both countries. These concerns are likely to be exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, most of which relate to water. The prolonged hiatus in the Indo-Pakistan high-level dialogue, whose commencement in 2004 had raised hopes, and the proclivity of extremist elements, especially in Pakistan, to hijack the water discourse to further their hostile agenda, have raised doubts about the relevance and efficacy of the IWT in resolving water-related issues. During the sporadic high-level meetings, discussions on water issues have focused on the ongoing disputes, without much success.

A promising recent development in the uncertain landscape of Indo-Pakistan relations is the discussions on all aspects of water issues among relevant stakeholders such as retired officials, diplomats, water resource experts from the academia, non-governmental organizations, and civil society activists organized by Indian and Pakistani think-tanks, in collaboration with external partners. Held in a cordial atmosphere devoid of mutual acrimony, the Track 2 dialogue has identified a number of serious gaps in the scope of the IWT in addressing issues that were neglected or not considered serious or were not as clearly understood when the Treaty was negotiated as they are now. Their salience is now firmly established and it is for these for them to come up with suggestions on how those gaps might be bridged. A summary of the gaps and challenges and possible responses thereto is given below.

1.7.      Gaps in the TWT

There is no provision in the IWT on how the Parties should respond to current or future reduction in the river flows caused by climate change, sedimentation, and other factors. The Treaty does not address the issue of quality or pollution of water from industrial and agricultural run-off, deforestation, etc. It does not provide for watershed management in respect of rivers whose catchment areas are located across the border. The Treaty does not provide for environmental flows in the eastern rivers ‘allocated’ wholly to India. Yet another omission relates to the proper management of the ground waters. Whilst permitting India to use the waters of the western rivers for irrigation and hydroelectric generation, it does not call for an examination of the cumulative effects of a cascade of such projects.

The Track 2 consultations recommend a series of jointly conducted studies by relevant institutions of India and Pakistan on all the aforementioned topics in order to produce a knowledge base for decisions to be agreed by the two countries on tackling them.

1.8.      Challenges that were not Understood and Addressed by the Treaty

It is understood that climate change impacts will include the rapid melting and recession of the HKH glaciers and disrupt the pattern of the monsoons which together feed and replenish river flows and aquifers; increase in the number, duration, and severity of extreme events such as floods or droughts as well as higher temperature with profound effects on water; accelerated pollution of fresh water. However, knowledge regarding these impacts is inadequate for decisions on how to adapt to them.

Recommended response measures include joint or co-ordinated monitoring of the HKH glaciers and joint scientific studies on their change patterns as well as the pattern of the monsoons, and co-operation in predicting and coping with floods and droughts and other extreme events.

1.9.      Enhanced Co-operation on Integrated Management of Water Resources in the Indus Basin

The Track 2 dialogue has called on the two countries to build on the IWT and forge wide- ranging co-operation on both the demand and supply of water, including improved maintenance of canals; exchange of meteorological hydrological data, regarding flows in the dry season and precipitation events; securing of data from third party sources; study of the ground water status and ways to ensure the sustainability of aquifers; new irrigation techniques, including drip irrigation; joint studies on best practices for water storage in arid zones; research and experiments on alternative crops and heat-resistant crop and plant varieties; better management of demand through enhanced efficiency in use by all sectors; etc.

1.10.    Co-operation at the Regional Level

The Track 2 dialogue has called on India and Pakistan to strengthen co-operation for ensuring the success of regional strategies and plans agreed under the umbrella or SAARC and other processes relating to water resources.


India and Pakistan need to initiate a serious dialogue on strengthening the dispute resolution mechanism of the IWT and on developing a strategy and plans of action for co-operation on water-related challenges, keeping in view the rich menu of suggestions made by the unofficial Track 2 dialogues. The long-term water security of India and Pakistan, which is closely linked to their food and energy security, can only be achieved if they can muster the necessary political will to establish mutually beneficial co-operation on water resources.

[1] The author is a former Ambassador and Deputy Secretary General of UNEP.