Indus Water Treaty - I

The Dispute and the Current Discourse around it

On 19 Sep 2020 it will be the sixtieth anniversary of signing of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan. The Treaty, signed in Karachi on 19 Sep 1960, is a water sharing agreement between the two countries that covers the six rivers (Indus, Chenab, Jhelum called the Western Rivers and Ravi, Sutlej and Beas called the Eastern Rivers) of the Indus Basin. All these six rivers flow from India to Pakistan. 

The Indus with its five main tributary rivers comprises one of the great river systems in the world. Its annual flow is twice that of Nile and three times that of Tigris and Euphrates combined. 

Since it was signed, the Treaty has withstood the acrimonious relationship between the two neighbors, including the three wars of 1965, 1971 and 1999. No wonder IWT is considered as one of the most successful water-sharing arrangements in the world today. The Treaty was negotiated and drafted by engineers from both sides (India and Pakistan) and the credit for its success should go to them. 

Current Discourse

Notwithstanding the fact that the Treaty is considered a shining example of water diplomacy, since the last several years now some experts in India have been talking of a review of the Treaty as they argue that it is very unfair towards India and that India gave away its rights while negotiating the Treaty. Some of these experts have questioned ‘Why India agreed to such humiliating terms’ and have, instead of seeking a review of the Treaty, sought its abrogation. One of the arguments also being made for declaring it invalid is that it was signed by Prime Minister of India and not by the President of India who is the official head of the Republic of India. There are still others who are asking for stopping of flow of water to Pakistan saying blood and water cannot flow together.

People in Kashmir are also not happy with the Treaty since they have been led to believe that the Treaty is hugely discriminatory and unfair towards the State. It has been argued that the State’s economic development has suffered very adversely because of it, mainly because it has adversely impacted the hydro power potential of the state. However, till date there has been no scientific qualification of losses, if any, to the State of J&K on account of this Treaty. Numbers have been pulled out of air to arrive at ‘notional’ estimates and these numbers vary widely from Rs 6,500 crores annually to Rs 50,000 crores, it being unclear whether the latter figure is estimated annual loss or the total loss since the time the Treaty was signed. In 2002 a resolution was passed in the J&K State Legislative Assembly seeking review of the Treaty. Post the Sep 14 floods, the Treaty is now being blamed for valley’s flood woes as it is being argued that the Treaty does not allow construction of flood mitigation or moderation storages on Jhelum. 

Even in some quarters in Pakistan, one of highly water stressed countries in the world, concerns are being expressed that the Treaty has not fully safeguarded its interests. It is felt in some quarters that the Treaty is not clear on some issue, like for instance, the design, construction and operation of hydro power projects on rivers flowing through Jammu and Kashmir. And that there could have been better provisions in the Treaty to address and resolve issues.      

Clearly neither of the two signatories, i.e. India and Pakistan, nor one of the key stakeholders i.e. the state of Jammu & Kashmir, are happy with the Treaty with each one feeling it got a raw deal. In such a situation, it can be quite confusing for a common man to comprehend how a Treaty, which on one hand is being hailed as one of the most successful water sharing agreements in the world can at the same time be damned by three key stakeholders, with two of them being signatories to it. 

To separate fact from fiction and perception from reality one needs to understand more about the Treaty. This two part write up essentially intends to do just that – visit the origin of the dispute, briefly trace the decade long journey of the negotiations which culminated in the Treaty being signed in 1960 and finally capture its key highlights and provisions. Essentially provide, in simple text, a high level overview of the Indus Water Treaty. 

Subsequently, the intent is also to analyse some of the contentious issues (inability to construct storage schemes resulting in decreased hydro power potential, lack of provision to construct flood storages, the impracticability of stopping the flow of waters to Pakistan, impact on expanding irrigation command area etc.) that are being discussed and debated in context of the Indus Water Treaty and try to put, without any rhetoric, the facts on the table.  

Origins of the Dispute 

The Indus water issue is a classic case of the conflicting claims of up and down-stream riparian. Even prior to partition 1947, disputes on sharing waters of the Indus Basin rivers had arisen between the British ruled provinces of Punjab and Bombay (Sind then was part of Bombay) and the then princely state of Bahawalpur and Bikaner over the formers’ proposed irrigation schemes and these were still outstanding at the time of the partition when the borders of the two countries were drawn up on the basis of religious divide and did not take into account the implication of the water resources divide. 

On partition the newly formed states were at odds over how to share and manage what was essentially a cohesive and unitary irrigation network. Pakistan became the downstream riparian and the headworks of the two main irrigation canals in Pakistan were left on the Indian side of the border. It found that the water which is its lifeblood, originated in another country, with which it had a hostile relation. 

In the autumn of 1947 the two governments signed a Standstill Agreement which allowed water flows to continue from India to Pakistan but when the Agreement expired India stopped the flows from one of the headworks to Pakistan. However, soon after this the water flow was resumed on signing of the Inter–Dominion Accord between the two countries. 

With the signing of this Accord a temporary truce was achieved but the main issue of rational and permanent mechanism for sharing of water of the Indus Basin between the two countries, eluded resolution. Numerous meetings took place over the course of next few years to discuss the issue but no fair and acceptable resolution seemed in sight and it looked the two countries had reached a dead end. This stalemate continued till, in 1951, the World Bank offered to mediate between the two countries to resolve the issue. 

(In the next part of this write up we shall discuss, among other things, the mediation by World Bank, key highlights and provisions of the Treaty and its success factors.)

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