Indus Waters Treaty: India, Pak Must Stop Bickering; Here's the Real Issue...

India’s call for revision of the Indus Waters Treaty has created a sensation of sorts, which isn't really warranted.

4 min read
Hindi Female

India’s call for a revision of the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 has created a sensation of sorts, which is not really warranted. This is a water-sharing agreement brokered by the World Bank which also acts as a custodian of sorts of the arrangement.

The durability of the IWT has been proved by the fact that it has not been affected by the past India-Pakistan hostility. Its provisions are fairly iron-clad and it can only be revoked by the consent of both parties. This has not prevented bickering between the two sides over the treaty’s provisions and its interpretation.

At present it’s not clear if New Delhi is seeking some specific modification of the treaty or is using the notice to Pakistan as a means of pressuring Islamabad to abandon its attempts to block two important hydro-electric projects.

The problem seems to lie with the interpretation of the agreement which has been quite generous to Pakistan, that  got some 80 per cent of the Indus waters as compared to 20 per cent for India. It has  the right to the waters of the western rivers, Indus, Jhelum and the Chenab, while India has been allocated the eastern rivers of Ravi, Beas and the SutlejIndia can use the waters of the western rivers for domestic non-consumptive needs such as storage, irrigation and generation of electricity generated from run-of-the-river schemes.


The Issue of Dispute Resolution

The big issues are Pakistan’s objections to the Kishanganga and the Ratle project on the Chenab.

India insists that these are “run of the river” schemes, while  Pakistan objects to the Indian design arguing that they will reduce the flow of the water and thus goes against the basic tenets of the treaty. In 2015, India and Pakistan both called for a neutral expert to resolve the issue. But then Pakistan withdrew its request and demanded a court of arbitration.

The IWT has a clear cut dispute resolution mechanism—first water commissioners of both sides try and resolve the issue. If this fails, the World Bank can appoint a neutral expert and if that, too, doesn’t work that it appoints a court of arbitration.

But when the World Bank moved on the issue last year after some dithering, it created more confusion. It  appointed an expert, Michael Lino as well as a court of arbitration headed by Prof Sean Murphy which has begun hearing Islamabad’s plaint in The Hague.  

New Delhi has been upset by this development as it argues that two parallel processes cannot be simultaneously carried out.

In fact New Delhi’s move seems aimed at modifying Article IX, to clarify that the dispute resolution process must follow a graded response in which every dispute is first handled by a neutral expert and only if it does not work, should it  be taken up by an arbitrator.

Experts claim that India is using 95 per cent of the waters allotted to it but quite a bit of the  waters of the Ravi and the Sutlej flow into Pakistan and are not utilised for any significant purpose by India.

To begin with constructing a dam at Bhakra on the Sutlej, the Pong and Pandoh dams on the Beas river and the Thein (Ranjit Sagar)  dam on the Ravi.  It has also used tunneling to link the Beas and Sutlej, a barrage at Madhopur, near Pathankot is also linked to the Beas.


Now, New Delhi has initiated three projects to utilise as much of the allotted waters as it can.  The first is a new dam on the Ravi downstream from the existing Ranjit Sagar dam, the second is the multipurpose project on the Ujh river which is a tributary of the Ravi and then there is a second Ravi-Beas link a little below the Ujh to divert the water to the Beas basin.

Many here  feel that there is no need for India to give Pakistan anything. In recent years, there has been significant opinion in India calling for the termination of this arrangement because of the Pakistani hostility to India.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

Just what this would imply is not clear. India can hardly prevent the waters flowing into Pakistan, but what Islamabad fears is that it can interfere with the flow of the water, especially in the dry season.

Actually, both India and Pakistan are barking up the wrong tree. There has been a steady decline in their flow and the problems of water-logging and salinity plague both countries. According to one calculation, average monthly flows in the Cheban at Marala headworks nearly halved between 1999 and 2009.

More so than India, the issue of water is an emotive one in Pakistan. Recall that one of the drivers of its Kashmir adventure in 1947 was to secure the Mangala  and Marala headworks. Per capita water availability has been falling for decades due to the growing population and poor water management. In such an environment it has been easy for some groups to  blame India for the water shortage.

The real challenge India and Pakistan face is climate change.

Most of the rivers in the IWT are fed by glaciers which are melting faster than normal. Pakistan is trying to build storage facilities to take care of all eventualities and as a  flood control measure.

Given just how the basin intertwines the two subcontinental neighbours, they need an integrated approach towards problem solving, rather than blaming each other. Maybe the IWT needs to be re-written for the purpose, since the original treaty was a somewhat crude division of water that did not anticipate the climate change era.

(Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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