Indus Waters Treaty - UPSC Notes

The Indus Waters Treaty is a water-sharing agreement between India and Pakistan signed in 1960. It was brokered by the World Bank. This is an important treaty and one of the most successful water-sharing agreements to date. It is an important topic for the UPSC exam as it features in the news whenever Indo-Pak relations are discussed.

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Indus Waters Treaty (IWT)

The IWT was signed by the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the then Pakistani President Ayub Khan. Brokered by the World Bank (then known as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), the negotiations for the agreement went on for nine years.

Ever since the partition of India in 1947, the Indus River had been a bone of contention between the four countries through which it runs – India, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan. The river originates from Tibet.

India had blocked water to Pakistan for some time in 1948 but later restored it after the ceasefire. In 1951, Pakistan took the matter to the United Nations (UN) and accused India of cutting the supply of water to many Pakistani villages.

On the recommendations of the UN, the World Bank came up with this agreement in 1954. It was eventually signed on September 19, 1960.

Indus Waters Treaty – Provisions in Brief

The treaty spells out conditions for water-sharing of the River Indus and its five tributaries.

  • India got control over the three eastern rivers, which are:
    • Ravi
    • Beas
    • Sutlej
  • All the waters of the Eastern Rivers shall be available for the unrestricted use of India until the arise of any unwanted situation.
  • Pakistan got control over the three western rivers, which are:
    • Indus
    • Chenab
    • Jhelum
  • A Permanent Indus Commission was set up by the United Nations for resolving any disputes that may arise in water sharing, with a mechanism for arbitration to resolve conflicts amicably.
  • According to the treaty, India can use the water from the western rivers for domestic, non-consumptive needs such as storage, irrigation, and also the generation of electricity.
  • The treaty gives India 20% of the water from the Indus River System and the rest 80% to Pakistan.
  • In executing any scheme of flood protection or flood control each country(India/Pakistan) will avoid, as far as practicable, any material damage to the other country.
  • The use of the natural channels of the Rivers for the discharge of flood or other excess waters shall be free and not subject to limitation by either India or Pakistan, and neither of the countries shall have any claim against the other in respect of any damage caused by such use.

Indus Waters Treaty Issues

There have been issues concerning the treaty with both sides accusing each other of violating the terms of the treaty.

  • In 2016, Pakistan had approached the World Bank raising concerns of India’s Kishenganga and Ratle hydroelectric power projects being constructed in Jammu & Kashmir. India then requested for neutral experts to inspect the plants, saying that the points raised by Pakistan were technical ones and do not require a court of arbitration (as Pakistan has taken it to an arbitration court). The World Bank permitted India to proceed with the projects after talks were concluded between both the countries on the technicalities of the treaty.
  • The Tulbul project (which is a navigation lock-cum-control structure at the mouth of the Wular Lake, situated on the Jhelum from Anantnag to Srinagar and Baramulla) was suspended in 1987 after Pakistan objected to it. Recently, the government decided to review this suspension not taking into account Pakistan’s protests.
  • Pakistan’s Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) project passes through the Rann of Kutch in India’s Gujarat. The project was constructed without India’s consent. India has objected because this is in contravention to the IWT. The lower riparian state is in India and hence it needs to be given all details. There is also the danger of flooding in the state of Gujarat.
  • Recently, the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have taken on a downward spiral. In the wake of the Uri attacks on India, Prime Minister Modi remarked that blood and water cannot flow simultaneously indicating to Pakistan that its support to terrorism across the border will lead to India rethinking its generous stance on the IWT. Indeed, many experts believe that the treaty is more favourable towards Pakistan than India.
  • Another issue cited with the IWT is that it was signed on India’s behalf by the then PM Nehru. However, he was not the head of state and that the treaty ought to have been signed by the head of state, the then president of the country.
  • India does not use its entire share of water it is entitled to as per the provisions of the IWT. About 2 million acre-feet (MAF) of water from the River Ravi flows into Pakistan unutilized by India.
  • In the wake of the Pulwama attacks in 2019, the Indian government stated that all water flowing into Pakistan at present, in the three eastern rivers, will be diverted to Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan for different uses.
  • To prevent this flow and utilize the entire share of water under the Treaty, India has taken the following steps:
    • Shahpurkandi Project: This will help in generating power for Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.
    • Ujh Multipurpose Project: This will create storage of water on the Ujh, which is a tributary of the River Ravi, for irrigation as well as power generation.
    • 2nd Ravi Beas link below Ujh: This has been declared a National Project by the GOI. This involves constructing a barrage across river Ravi for diverting water through a tunnel link to the Beas Basin. This is planned to prevent excess water flowing into Pakistan.

For more on India – Pakistan Relations visit the linked article.

IWT – Options for India

A few political thinkers believe that the treaty is one-sided and biased towards Pakistan and that it should be abrogated.

However, this is easier said than done and not without serious ramifications. 

  • The treaty’s provisions do not allow a unilateral abrogation.
  • Even if India decides to back down from the treaty, the 1969 Vienna Convention on the law of treaties should be abided by.
  • This can hamper the country’s image internationally. India’s other neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal may become skeptical about similar treaties with them.
  • Some experts on international affairs think that India should safeguard bilateral treaties if it is aspiring for a permanent seat in the UNSC.
  • The move to abrogate the treaty may lead to more problems with respect to terrorist activities.
  • India should also build adequate infrastructure to use the entire water before stopping water from Pakistan.
  • Another angle is that of China. China, with its support to Pakistan, may block the water from the Brahmaputra to Assam. It can also stop the waters of the Indus which originates in the Chinese territory.

Experts opine that India should use the waters of the western rivers as permitted by the IWT. This alone can send a strong signal to Pakistan. A lot should be thought over before any other drastic steps are taken, as they can have lasting effects on the relationship with Pakistan.

Indus Waters Treaty – Indian Polity:-Download PDF Here

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