Indus Water Treaty

Indus Water Treaty (1960) is the most enduring treaty between India and Pakistan that has survived all the wars and stands intact even in most difficult period of bilateral relations between the two countries. This treaty is cited as the global model for cooperation on the use of trans-boundary river waters. The success of the Treaty also lends weight to the theory that when it comes to water, nations tend to cooperate rather than get into a conflict.


After partition, the use of the waters of the Indus and its tributaries became a major dispute between India and Pakistan. The irrigation canals of the Sutlej valley and the Bari Doab were split – with the canals lying primarily in Pakistan and the headwork dams in India disrupting supply in some parts of Pakistan. The concern over India building large dams over various Punjab Rivers that could undercut the supply flowing to Pakistan, as well as the possibility that India could divert rivers in the time of war, caused political consternation in Pakistan. This led to negotiations and final signing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960.

Provisions of Indus Water Treaty

The treaty, which was brokered by World Bank after full one decade negotiations has following provisions:

  • It classified the six rivers of Indus River System into Eastern and Western rivers. The Eastern rivers included Sutlej, Beas and Ravi; while western rivers included Jhelum, Chenab and Indus. Out of these, Indus and Sutlej rise in China while rest four rise in India. All of them enter from India to Pakistan.
  • India was given full rights over eastern rivers while India had to let the western rivers water flow unrestricted to Pakistan.
  • India could use the waters of western rivers also but only in non-consumptive manner, for domestic purposes {including irrigation and hydropower production but only as the manner specified in the text of treaty}.
  • However, for eastern rivers India could use the water as it pleased.

Further, the treaty established a Permanent Indus Commission to implement its provisions. Both India and Pakistan have an Indus Commissioner who meet regularly, exchange information and data and settle minor disputes if any. So far, around 110 rounds of meetings of Indus Commission have happened. The meetings of Indus Commission have never been suspended.

Recent clamour about abrogation of Indus Water Treaty

In the aftermath of Uri Attack in 2016, there was a clamour in India that India should abrogate this 56 years treaty. The argument was that as a non-military option, India can stop the flow of waters to Pakistan to bring it on knees. Around 65% of the Pakistan’s geographical area {which includes entire Punjab province that side} is part of Indus basin. Pakistan has developed world’s largest canal system in this basin. The water of Indus treaties is source of irrigation, hydro power and drinking water for millions of Pakistanis. If the water from rivers is stopped; it can surely cut the jugular vein of Pakistan. We note here that this argument is not new and has been floated time and again. It is considered to be easy and effective option with no presumed collateral damage.

What can be implications of abrogation / renegotiation of the treaty?

The terms abrogation and renegotiation have different explicit meanings. Abrogation is used as a suggestion to India to arm-twist Pakistan and bring it on knees. Pakistan domestically makes noise about India stealing its water and there are voices in that country to “renegotiate” the treaty. However, practically neither India can abrogate the treaty nor Pakistan can ask for renegotiation. This is because the treaty is generous enough for Pakistan and any renegotiation would mean scrapping the existing treaty and take a risk for less favourable one. As far as abrogation by India is concerned, it has short term risk of war {Pakistan may declare it an act of war} and long term impacts {flooding our own cities, where we would keep that water?}. Further, Pakistan’s craving for Kashmir also originates in the desire to control rivers.

It’s worth note here that India has actually never used the western rivers. Even if it decides to use the water as the manner specified in the treaty, it is enough to shake Pakistan.

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