Dams · Indus

So who will suffer in the Indus water imbroglio?

Diplomatic and military strategies, by definition, are not decided through public debates. So the jingoism around Indus treaty with Pakistan seems more like an attempt at sending threatening signals. But it will have multiple serious ramifications in any case, so it is worth deliberating about.

The 1960 Indus treaty has allocated rights of development on three eastern tributaries (Sutlej, Beas & Ravi) to India, and we have exhausted that entitlement almost fully. Attempts to use the occasional remaining flow will mean a huge impact in Indian Punjab, which is unlikely to resonate well with the people of Punjab.  The treaty gave Pakistan dominant right of development of the three western tributaries (Chenab, Jhelum and Indus), India has limitations about water use (both in terms of quantity and manner of use) in case of the western rivers. India has not yet exhausted the entitlement in this case.

Indus Basin Map (Source: Kalyansir.net)
Indus Basin Map (Source: Kalyansir.net)

Incidentally, Indus basin also involves two other countries, namely China and Afghanistan, as some part of the basin also falls in these counties. The Indus basin is spread over 1.1 million sq km area across Afghanistan (9 %), China (8 %), India (38 %) and Pakistan (46 %). All countries have built dams in the basin in their territories (1). But the 1960 treaty involved only India and Pakistan due to historical compulsions.

The September 26, 2016 meeting called by the Prime Minister on this issue took a number of decisions, including expediting projects on these western rivers, setting up inter ministerial task force to achieve it, restarting work on Tulbul navigation project and also, according to reports (2), suspending the meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission indefinitely. The inter-ministerial task force will look into the details and workings of the treaty, and members of the task force will be tasked with a sense of urgency. 56 years and 112 meetings after signing of the treaty, this is the first time when such a step has been taken.

If this is beginning of an exercise to abrogate or suspend the Indus Treaty, we should remember that there is no exit clause in the treaty. Hence, under the Vienna convention (1969) on such Treaties, the option of walking away from the Treaty is practically non existent.

Incidentally, on Sept 26, 2016 (3), Pakistan approached the International Arbitration Court against India for violation of Indus Treaty in implementation of Ratle and Kishanganga (4) Hydropower projects.

On abrogation of the Indus Treaty, late Shri Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary, Ministry of Water Resources and an authority on Indus Treaty, has rightly said (5): “Abrogation of the Treaty, occasionally advocated by some, does not merit serious discussion. Should there be a renegotiation of the Treaty, as is often urged in both countries? It is difficult to envisage an outcome that would be better than before, from the points of view of both countries. Unfortunately, water-sharing is a zero-sum game: One side cannot increase its share without diminishing that of the other. The best course would perhaps be to leave things as they are and hope that, with improving political relations, a more reasonable and constructive spirit on both sides toward the operation of the Treaty will prevail in the future.”

Underlining the importance of the treaty, in 2009, in an article, Asif Ali Zardari wrote in the Washington Post by way of advice to President Barack Obama (6), “The water crisis in Pakistan is directly linked to relations with India. Resolution could prevent an environmental catastrophe in South Asia, but failure to do so could fuel the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism. We applaud the president’s desire to engage our nation and India to defuse the tensions between us.” A more recent article from Pakistan (7) says that the current situation provides an opportunity to “Pakistan to wake up from its complacent slumber, do a bit of introspection to take its water resource management more seriously.”

Indeed, Indus treaty has meant many unknown casualties, it seems it will take more (8): “It is not just the ghost of Bulleh Shah or the abandoned city of Kasur (in Pakistan) that haunts the contemporary city. Just a little outside of it are the remains of the mighty Sutlej, once the city’s lifeline and now reduced to a swamp with wild, overgrown grass. Besides the old residents, no one even knows a river once flowed here… The story of the Sutlej is the story of conflict between India and Pakistan over the rivers. It is the story of Bulleh Shah and the religious orthodoxy. It is the story of Bhagat Singh and his homeland… Flowing at the edge of the walled city of Lahore is the river Ravi. There still stand a few massive bridges that connect this part of the country to the other side, symbolic of the mighty river that once flowed under them. But the river itself is a sad reminder of what it used to be only a few decades ago.” Both Sutlej and Ravi rivers have been allocated to India under the Indus Treaty and most of the times little water flows to Pakistan from these rivers.


In fact, sensible section of Indian media has also been making clear statement against any move to scrap the treaty(9): “Scrapping the treaty will needlessly pit India against the people of Pakistan by playing on an insecurity that has a deeper psychological effect than the threat of a war… If the Pakistani media periodically raises the bogey of water terrorism by India, the media at home is not far behind in raising a similar flag against China… First, there is no way to control the fast flowing waters of the Indus River, at least in India. Unless, India builds dams and forces the India-friendly population of Ladakh to undergo the trauma of massive displacement. Not only will this move punish a region that has never associated itself with the unrest in Kashmir’s streets, Indian military camps located on the banks of the Indus will also have to be shifted. It is not without reason that Indian planners have never even toyed with the idea of setting up a dams or hydel project on the Indus River… It (India) also has plans ready with a virtual procession of dams planned on the Jhelum and the Chenab with names like Sawalkot (10), Dul Hasti, Pakuldul, Gyspa, Kwar, Kiru (11)and Bursar (12). If Baglihar is an example, Pakistan is bound to approach an international tribunal to contest India’s construction parameters – the height, pondage, etc – for each dam. The possibility of litigation slowing down the pace of work coupled with the extremely difficult terrain will mean it will take an enormous amount of the nation’s resources to build a single dam.”

hydro_projects_chenab_riverEven Mohan Guruswamy, known for being close to right wing, wrote why it is not possible to block water flow to Pakistan(13): “On the face of it, the pact seems generous to Pakistan as it gives the lower riparian state 80 per cent of the western rivers’ water. The reality, however, is that IWT makes a virtue out of necessity, as it is the region’s geography that decides this, rather than any altruism. The Kashmir Valley is just 100 km wide at its maximum and 15,520.3 sq km in area. While the Himalayas divide the Valley from Ladakh, the Pir Panjal range, that encloses the Valley from west and south, separates it from the great plains of northern India. This picturesque and densely settled Valley has an average height of 1,850 metres above sea level but the surrounding Pir Panjal range has an average elevation of 5,000 metres. Thus the Pir Panjal range stands between the Kashmir Valley and the rest of the country, and is an insurmountable barrier that precludes the transfer of water anywhere else. Neither do the contours of the Valley allow for more waters to be stored in any part of it. As the waters can’t be stored or used by diversion elsewhere, it has to keep flowing into Pakistan.”


Indian Prime Minister has said that water and blood cannot flow together. Blood should not flow under any circumstances, but can we stop flow of water to Pakistan? We must remember that here we are talking about stopping flow of several massive rivers, each with millions of cubic meters of water (& so much more that flows with it) on daily basis on average, not turning off a tap or a pipeline or a canal. We do not have the infrastructure to either store or divert so much water. Such infrastructure needs a lot of studies, planning and years of work even if it is to be done for Greater Common Good. Immediately, we can put up pumps to lift water from these rivers for use within Jammu & Kashmir & may be divert some to the nearest Eastern River. But that would be of limited quantity. We have hydropower projects on both Chenab and Indus, but these have limited storage capacity.

On the question of building more projects on the Western Rivers, this involves major structural interventions involving dams, deforestation, displacement, mining, building of roads, townships, tunnels, transmission lines, generation of millions cubic meters of muck, serious adverse impacts on landscape, rivers, biodiversity, climate and life and livelihoods of lakhs of people. All this in an area that suffers from multiple vulnerabilities including earthquakes, erosion, landslides, avalanches, floods, including GLOFs (Glacier Lake Outburst Flood).

While climate change is already worsening these vulnerabilities, these major interventions will make it much worse. We have already seen a trailer of the possible consequences in the J&K flood disaster of Sept 2014. The official Ravi Chopra committee set up on Supreme Court orders following the June 2013 Uttarakhand flood disaster has already shown how operating and under construction hydropower projects played a role in increasing the flood disaster in Uttarakhand.

screen-shot-2014-09-12-at-4-51-39-pm Jhelum Flood Sep 2014 in J&K ( Pics source: Google Images) 

The big question is, will this help achieve our objective of curbing terrorism originating in Pakistan? Even keen observer like Praveen Swami, not exactly known as a dove, has questioned the efficacy of this strategy. Coming from someone who is not exactly famous as a dove, this is significant (14): “Like so many hawkish memes, Indus Treaty abrogation has been marketed as grand strategy. Held up to the light of day, though, it isn’t hard to see it for what it is: a plan that belongs to the dusty shelf reserved for awful ideas.”

And, are we asking the already long suffering people of J&K to suffer further hardships?

There will also be several other collateral damages. This includes, besides what is stated above about impact on J&K, the impact on lives and livelihoods of millions of people, rivers, environment and biodiversity of Pakistan (none of them are part of military objectives), the credibility and trustworthiness with other neighbours with whom we share rivers, including Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, and also our international reputation.

Experience of year 2000 In this context, we should recall what happened twice in a single year in 2000. In June 2000, there was sudden flood in Siang river, the main tributary of Brahmaputra, flowing from China, leading to massive damages in Arunachal Pradesh in India.  There was no rain in the area at that time. The second instance happened three months latter, this time  on Sutlej, again the massive 30 meter high flood wave originated from China and devastated downstream riverine area in Himachal Pradesh in India, leading to several deaths and damages to under construction Nathpa Jakhri hydropower project. Very strangely, we still do not know what the causes of either of these floods were as Indian government also accepted in Parliament, India does not know what caused these floods.

It is not clear if it is just a coincidence that China (15) blocked one of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra River flowing into Arunachal Pradesh of India, as reported by The Hindu on Oct 1, 2016 (16).

Why review if Indus treaty is necessary The Indus Treaty, formulated through the 1950s and signed in 1960s, certainly needs a relook from a number of perspectives. The treaty has no provision of environment flows in the rivers whenever dams or hydropower projects or barrages are built over the rivers that the treaty deals with. There is also no provision of cumulative impact assessment of large number of projects taken up on the rivers, and decision making about these projects in the context of carrying capacity studies, besides the well defined social and environmental impact assessments and management plans. There is no joint monitoring envisaged, nor any joint study, leave aside joint projects. The treaty also does not look at the impact of excessive use of groundwater on the water flows in the rivers and how to limit or regulate the same or even share the groundwater use across the river basins. Climate change is already affecting the rivers majorly, which now requires to be included in the functioning of the treaty. Similarly, the impact of river pollution across the boundaries right upto the delta is another issue that the treaty has not fully dealt with.


Prof Shakil A Romshoo, head of the department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University, agrees (17) a review of the Indus Water Treaty from the climate change perspective and maintaining ecological flow – points which are not part of the original agreement maybe necessary. The treaty talks of distribution of water only between India and Pakistan, but nothing about maintaining environmental flows.

In conclusion All this may sound like rantings of a weak heart. Far from it, one is reminded what Winston Churchill, known more for his hawkish views on war, also said: “The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

There can be no two opinions that the terrorism originating from Pakistan soil needs to end. But using rivers, environment and people as tools in achieving this objective will be neither effective, nor just.

Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

The author is coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

(Pics Source: Google Images. Hydropower Project Maps of Chenab and Jhelum Basins are prepared by SANDRP. )


  1. Abridged and different versions of this has been published at following links: http://www.asianage.com/debate/age-debate-barrage-sentiment-782 and


  1. An Odiya translated version is being published at Nakshatra News.


End  Notes: 

  1.  For  example, for China’s dam on Indus, see: http://www.unpo.org/downloads/228.pdf 
  2. https://www.thethirdpole.net/2016/09/26/india-suspends-indus-commissioners-meetings/ 
  3. http://nation.com.pk/national/26-Sep-2016/pakistan-resorts-to-iac-against-violation-of-iwt-by-india 
  4.  For a blog on verdict of International Court on Kishanganga project, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/international-court-asks-india-to-release-more-water-and-rejects-plea-to-re-interpret-february-verdict-on-kishanganga/ 
  5.  https://www.boell.de/en/2014/03/16/indus-waters-treaty-1960-indian-perspective 
  6. http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/how-india-can-leverage-the-indus-water-treaty-116092700078_1.html 
  7. https://www.thethirdpole.net/2016/10/01/pakistan-the-time-to-focus-on-infrastructure-is-now/ 
  8. http://scroll.in/article/817131/and-quiet-flows-the-indus-the-land-was-divided-but-the-waters-are-still-shared-like-history 
  9. http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/why-indus-waters-treaty-is-good-to-keep/301080.html 
  10.  SANDRP blog on this project: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/open-letter-to-jkspcb-cancel-public-hearings-for-sawalkote-hep-for-violations/ 
  11.  SANDRP blog on Kwar and Kiru HEPs: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/open-letter-to-jkspcb-cancel-public-hearings-for-sawalkote-hep-for-violations/  For a map showing the projects on Chenab, see: https://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Hydro_%20Electric_Projects_in_Chenab_River_Basin.pdf;
  12. For a map showing the projects on Jhelum, see: https://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Hydro_Electric_Projects_on_Jhelum_River_Basin.pdfthese maps  were prepared a couple of years ago.
  13.  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/indus-water-flow-can-t-be-stopped-721 
  14. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/indus-waters-treaty-wont-solve-india-pakistan-terror-problem-3051481/ 
  15.  For a blog on China’s hydropower projects in Brahmaputra basin and related information see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/media-hype-vs-reality-india-china-water-information-sharing-mou-of-oct-2013/
  16. http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-blocks-tributary-of-brahmaputra-in-tibet-to-build-dam/article9171963.ece 
  17. http://www.dailyo.in/politics/indus-waters-treaty-pakistan-lifeline-uri-attack-pok-gilgit-baltistan-tibet/story/1/13141.html 

5 thoughts on “So who will suffer in the Indus water imbroglio?

  1. There is no problem with the existing IWT between India and Pakistan but the long term needs of J&K state has to be taken care by Pakistan also which claims it as conjoined twin. One side Pakistan is objecting every water related project on slightest possible pretext citing IWT looking from the security angle and hurting economic interests of J&K state.

    The irrigation water to be used in the state should not exceed 700,000 acres from ground and surface water. It amounts to nearly 2 million acre feet (MAF) water. J&K has ultimate irrigation potential to utilize nearly 16 MAF to fully ward of drought conditions which is equal to irrigating 20% of its area. Due to excessive population growth, there is unbearable discontent particularly from local youth (refer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waithood ) due to rampant unemployment and congestion/subsistence living in farming sector. This is leading to unprecedented violent agitations for weeks together which is spreading to rural areas,

    IWT does not limit the development of hydro power generation but it limits the water storage required for hydro power projects. The total permitted storage is nearly 1.6 MAF. J&K state has total potential to generate 20,000 MW hydro power. Being a hilly state and prevailing cold weather, the hydro power harnessing is essential for the better living conditions of its people. All of them are run of river power projects with very low land submergence/MW. The generation cost (Rs/Kwh) of the power projects with moderate live storage (at least for 10 days storage) would drastically reduce the power generation cost with enhanced water usage. Moreover, when a project is strictly constructed fully complying Pakistan’s demands, the created storage would fully gets filled up by the silt within few years and the projects have to work as purely on run of river basis. The IWT does not look the river water sharing from the angle of rivalry between two enemy countries but on a mutual benefit basis in utilizing the Indus river basin waters. By not objecting every silly aspect of project design and not going to international court for arbitration to cause inordinate delay in projects execution, these projects with moderate storage capacity would not in any way risk the interests of downstream Pakistan even in case of manmade water deluge created by India. As the deluge water passes through the valleys (first at the detriment of its people), it would become harmless flood water when it enters Pakistan area. In fact the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) which are dammed fully with massive water reservoirs can be used very effectively to flood the Pakistan populated plains with proper precautions in India. Pakistan has no control on these rivers per IWT.

    Pakistan violated the IWT and constructed the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) to evacuate the brackish water generated out of irrigated lands to sea without passing/ mixing with river water to enhance the total river water use efficiency. More water flows to sea (or salt export) from LBOD than from the Indus river to the sea when Indus is not flooding with surplus flows. LBOD is passing through the Great Ran of Kutch area whose rain water flows in to the Koree creek located in Gujarat state of India. Koree river joining Koree creek is a delta branch of Sindh river and Sindh water overflows in to Koree river during floods. Thus Great Ran of Kutch is part of Indus river basin and India becomes lower most riparian state of Sind river basin. India can demand all the details of projects located in Pakistan and object their construction on the pretext of possible man made flooding or failure of massive storage dams located in Pakistan due to earth quakes as per the terms of IWT claiming its Great Ran of Kutch area is at risk. India has right to renegotiate the IWT claiming water share for the needs of Ran of Kutch area based on change in ground situation. Luni river joining the Koree creek also becomes tributary of Sind river and India has right to claim share from the waters generated in Sindh river basin of Pakistan as a lower riparian state as is the basis for IWT for Pakistan. (Refer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Rann_of_Kutch and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indus_Waters_Treaty for more data)
    The Luni river basin Gujarat and Rajasthan suffers from severe water shortage and is predominantly barren salt ridden desert or mud flats whereas Pakistan is providing irrigation water to 80% of cropped area in Sind river basin.

    Pakistan needs to stop interpreting IWT from purely security threat angle and stop hurting the economic interests of India. It should endeavor to enhance its economic interest from the water storages created in J&K state. Repealing IWT by India does not effect it any way being a upstream riparian country excluding its fall out in other international relations. Whereas Pakistan would loose its permitted leverage on the waters it is claiming from India.


  2. IWT with China is the need of the hour:

    The Present IWT between Pakistan and India is a bilateral treaty without involving all the riparian countries such as China & Afghanistan. As Pakistan has entered IWT with its upstream riparian country India, India has right to enter IWT with its upstream riparian country China. To bring Pakistan to terms, India should try to enter IWT with China. China is contributing nearly 180 billion cubic meters water in the basin. Refer http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/basins/indus/indus-CP_eng.pdf for more data. Main Indus river water is the nearest water source available to China for its water starved vast Tarim river basin area. The inter basin water transfer from main Indus river and Shyok River is feasible with a 300 km long gravity tunnel without violating the IWT with Pakistan as the water is not used in India.

    In a reciprocal way for agreeing favourably to India in settling the various territorial issues, etc. India may agree with China for facilitating transfer of China’s share of water (atleast 50 billion cubic meters) to Taklimakan desert area located in Tarim river basin. China would allow India total use of water generated in Sutlej river basin of China. Article 4, Section 13 of IWT between Pakistan and India does not limit the use of Indian river courses and its territory for facilitating transfer of Indus river water outside the basin area for use by China/third country. Allowing China to use Indian river courses and its territory for constructing engineering works as per IWT stipulations to transfer water outside the river basin to Tarim river basin in China is not violation of IWT between India & Pakistan.

    It would be a severe blow to Pakistan’s food security and its loss of last dependable ally China. Already Pakistan lost its big brother USA for encouraging terrorist activities to the detriment of USA interests. India is a major importer of Chinese goods with annual trade deficit of nearly 50 billion US$ and can induce China in merchandise and services trade better than Pakistan. Vast Taklimakan desert plateau is facing severe water shortage and located at 1400 m MSL far away from its water surplus areas. Indus river water available at 2800 m MSL is the best source of water which can be transferred by gravity to irrigate most of the Taklimakan desert plateau in addition to generating hydro power from the transferred Indus river water. China can build storage dams in its territory to impound Indus river water for regulating inter basin water transfer and hydro power generation. China may build a 300 km long road cum rail tunnel parallel to water transport tunnel to have shorter multi mode access from its eastern most area to Gujarat coastal area in lieu of long tortuous and unsafe Karakoram road link from Pakistan. Reciprocally, China would permit laying of oil and gas pipelines in its territory for the use by India to transport/ import oil & gas from central Asian countries and Russia.


  3. Kashmir map is horribly altered. Status quo all over the world is to show both the illegally occupied parts of Indian state of J&K , with PoJK and CoK. conveniently showing them as part of pakistan and china is backstabbing act on Republic of India.


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