Foreign Policy Watch: India-Pakistan

Indus Water Treaty: A Case of Hydropolitics


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Indus river system

Mains level: Indus Water Treaty



  • Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) made it the headlines recently. As India issued a notification to Pakistan for modification to the treaty, speculations are rife that the treaty is showing signs of inefficacy and that cracks are visible on the sole bridge between the two nuclear neighbours. On the other hand, for many in the hydro-diplomacy community, the IWT remain a stellar example for asserting that nations can cooperate for managing their shared rivers even with mutual mistrust and hostile political relations.

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What is Indus Water Treaty (IWT)?

  • The Indus Waters Treaty is a water-distribution treaty between India and Pakistan, brokered by the World Bank signed in Karachi in 1960.
  • According to this agreement, control over the water flowing in three eastern rivers of India the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej was given to India.
  • The control over the water flowing in three western rivers of India the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum was given to Pakistan


The present developments

  • Intergovernmental negotiations to rectify material breach of the treaty: India issued a notice to Pakistan on 25th January 2023 through its commissioner to the bilateral Permanent Indus Commission suggesting that Pakistan should enter intergovernmental negotiations within 90 days to rectify the material breach of the treaty under Article 12(3) of IWT.
  • Government-to-government negotiation before accepting the involvement of a neutral expert: India defended its move by stating that it was adhering to the provision under the treaty for a graded mechanism for handling an issue of concern as it interpreted it. Therefore, it asked for a government-to-government negotiation before accepting the involvement of a neutral expert and finally taking it to a court of arbitration.

Why such move?

  • Pakistan initially sought a neutral expert and then backtracked: In India, the perceived root cause for this present move is that Pakistan initially sought a neutral expert to examine the technical objections that it had raised on India’s Kishanganga and Ratle Hydropower projects but then backtracked and asked for adjudication through a court of arbitration.
  • Despite India’s efforts Pakistan refused to negotiate: Despite repeated efforts by India to negotiate at consecutive meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission, Pakistan refused to budge.
  • Pakistan has always preferred the route of arbitration: This is of consequence since Pakistan has always preferred the route of arbitration rather than a graded approach in the past with the involvement of a neutral expert before submitting to arbitration.
  • Pakistan’s repeated stance of seeking arbitration is prejudicial and pernicious: Indian strategic experts have called Pakistan’s repeated stance of seeking arbitration as prejudicial and pernicious while accusing the World Bank that it has allowed Pakistan to run riot in the last few years.

The role of World Bank?

  • Brokered by WB: The long-standing Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), a first-of-its-kind arrangement that was brokered by the World Bank between India and Pakistan for sharing the waters of the Indus system,
  • Signatory to the treaty to maintain ambivalence: The World Bank, as a signatory to the treaty, has maintained ambivalence and has yielded to both demands by appointing a neutral expert and a chairman for the court of arbitration.
  • Legal risk in duality of discussing and resolving: This has created a particularly confounding situation due to the initiation of two mutually-exclusive tracks for discussing and resolving the thorny issues. The Bank also recognised the practical and legal risks that this duality poses.


Mistrust and mismanagement

  • IWT concerns linked with National security and sovereignty: In the last two decades, both governments have raked up their concerns with the IWT, often coupling the Indus waters with national security and sovereignty with concerns emerging from the highest levels of governments at times.
  • Pakistan’s accusation: Pakistani officials and ministers on their part have issued statements accusing India of creating water woes in Pakistan by allowing sudden releases of water without prior notification as was the case in 2019.
  • Pakistan has also been apprehensive about two projects by India: The Baglihar and Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project (HEP), accusing India of acquiring the power to affect the timing and flow of water into Pakistan on rivers that belong to it under the provisions of IWT.
  • Misplaced developmental priorities of Pakistan: The politicisation of the IWT is systematic and has been occurring in a synchronised way, especially in Pakistan due to their misplaced developmental priorities.
  • Lack of ecosystems approach

Conditions that underlie any successful transboundary water negotiation process

  1. Parties actively recognise their interdependencies;
  2. Parties agree to explore competing and often conflicting values and interests and invent creative options for mutual gains; and
  3. Parties agree to create mechanisms to monitor the implementation of the agreement and adapt the agreement to address new issues as they emerge.

Climate change is often neglected in politicization of the water issues

  • The newer challenges of water governance are emerging. Water cannot be looked at as a stock of resource to be stored for human convenience, and released as per human will.
  • Today, whether it is in the Ganges or in the Indus delta regions, there is hardly any acknowledgement that upstream constructions and climate change are wreaking havoc on delta livelihoods.
  • Pakistan is so embroiled in the politics of water that they have become oblivious that they are losing a living heritage, the Palla fish The decline in catch is affecting the livelihoods of the fishing community.
  • Moreover, higher glacial melt due to global warming around the headwaters in the Himalayas is slated to increase flow in the short run but will be a threat to water security in the long run due to scarcities.
  • Therefore, all these bigger climatic threats and the threats created by the dam structures that can arrest the sediments and can cause upstream floods should be of bigger concern than mere politicisation of the water issues.


  • On the whole, the lack of trust between nations has marred the hydropolitics of the Indus. The priority should have been settling disputes amicably by drawing strength and confidence from the past and preparing for an uncertain precipitation regime of the future due to climate change. The concerns of a much-needed integrated basin governance approach for the Indus must not be overshadowed by politics of mistrust and hatred.

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