Water Wars : India vs Pakistan

Published: October 9th, 2016
Written By : Ronak Pol

Rising tensions between India and Pakistan are visible. Surgical strikes showed Indians commitment to defeating terrorism and the global support received after the strikes proved that India was not alone in this fight against terrorism.

But after the Uri attacks, Prime Minister Modi has also started looking at diplomatic measures that would force Pakistan’s hand to defeat home-grown terrorism. One of the measures that Mr.Modi is looking at is water and more specifically the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). For those who have followed Indo-Pak relations are well aware that IWT has stood the test of time when it came to previous disputed between India and Pakistan. But with statements by Prime Minister Modi like “Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously” we can clearly understand governments intent when it comes to ratifying its approach to the treaty.

But before we discuss if we can use the treaty as a bargaining chip to fight terrorism and if India can take charge and unilaterally abandon the treaty, we need to understand the basic structure of the treaty.

Indus Water Treaty.

Signed on 19th September 1960, it resolves disputes regarding  three east flowing rivers namely Ravi, Beas and Sutlej and their tributaries and three west flowing rivers namely Indus, Jhelum and Chenab and their tributaries. The issue is that these rivers originate in India and then flow to Pakistan.

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Image courtesy : Seeker Daily

Under the Treaty, the waters of Eastern Rivers are allocated to India and the country is obligated to let flow the waters of the Western Rivers except for the following uses: (a) Domestic Use, (b) Non-consumptive use, (c) Agricultural use as specified, (d) Generation of hydroelectric power as specified. India has also been permitted to construct storage of water on Western Rivers up to 3.6 MAF for various purposes but is under obligation to supply information of its storage and hydroelectric projects as specified.

Detailed specification of the treaty can be found on the Ministry of Water Resource,River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation website  (click here to read).

It is also important to note that this is a trilateral treaty where in India – Pakistan and The World Bank are involved where World Bank acted as a mediator between the two sovereign states when the treaty was signed.

What is India proposing?

First of all, it is very important to set the record straight and understand that India is not abandoning the treaty, nor is it taking any measures to break the treaty.

Even thoughMr.Modi’s comments can be misconstrued into believing the India will break the treaty and take measures to stop the flow of water into Pakistan – The chances of that happening are slim to none!.

What the government is hinting is towards better management of water when to comes to functioning within the bounds to the treaty. As we noted earlier that India is permitted to construct storage of water on Western Rivers up to 3.6 MAF but no storage has been developed so far.  As Times of India reports – There are also talks that India might reconsider “The Tulbul Project” which is a “navigation lock-cum-control structure” at the mouth of Wular Lake.  This would give India the control the flow of Jhelum river and would also have serious implications for Pakistan’s agriculture.

Times of India also reports that India will set up an Inter-Ministerial task force which will reevaluate the usage of water from the west flowing rivers, India is allowed to use 20% of the water flow but currently underutilises its entitlement.

Implications for Pakistan.

Careful execution of India’s rights under the guidelines of the treaty poses serious threats to Pakistani agriculture. Although infrastructure developments it is technically under the boundaries of the treaty it would exponentially reduce Pakistan’s share of water and would be detrimental as global warming makes water increasingly scarce.

But there is also a need to note that these infrastructure investments will take time to be executed and would not provide the immediate pressure that India needs. Also it water being a scarce resource there is an ethical question that would be raised if any measures are taken by the government that break the barriers of acceptability.

Spillover impacts.

Changes to this water treaty would have three evident implication for global diplomacy.The first as noted earlier would be if India takes unacceptable steps to block water flowing into Pakistan – This would lead to possible alienation of India when it comes to international support. The second would be with regards to the Kashmir conflict – any steps regarding IWT will affect India’s position regarding Kashmir. The third and the more serious would be between India and China and Brahmaputra flow inside India.

China and Pakistan are established allies when it comes to a border fight against India. China is an upper riparian state when it comes to Brahmaputra and any miss steps by India would have direct implications on Brahmaputra flow inside India.


With rising tensions resources are bound to find a way into politics. India is establishing itself as a power in the fight against terrorism and any steps in that regard should be encouraged. When it comes to IWT extra care should be taken while executing any and all plans, any misstep will dilute India’s advantage in global diplomacy.

Radicals might say that we don’t need to bother of what the word thinks and they would have been correct a few centuries back. With India dependency on imports from China and other parts of the world, having international credibility is a matter of growing importance and a serious factor when it comes trade and political incentives.

I would also like to address the issue of sentiments dictating actions – The idea that we need to stop imports from China and build India as a manufacturing superpower. Realisation needs to set in that this is not a day’s affair and that the economic rationale behind not buying Chinese goods is laughable at best. Most don’t understand the extent of India’s dependence on Chinese imports (To them I encourage to read my research paper – here). Any efforts to encourage campaigns under “Make in India” should be supported but till those initiatives materialise we are an import dependent nation for many commodities.

I would also like to ask my readers to stay aware of economically irrational comments that some politicians and WhatsApp bloggers might make – They are not worth investing time in.


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