Navigating Water Diplomacy: India’s Strategic Shift with the Indus Water Treaty

As We complete the Amrit Mahotsav of Bharat’s independence from the British clutch and celebrate democratic and Independent Bharat’s journey of Seventy Five years, a lump in our throat and a tear in our eyes, with the memories of our partition of our Motherland is inevitable.

When a separate nation was carved out from Bharat, the distribution of resources near and on the drawn border, became a controversial issue.

In 1948, the water rights of the Six river system were the focus of the Indo-Pakistan water dispute. Eventually, after negotiating for twelve years and with the intermediation of the World Bank, the Indus Water Treaty was signed between Bharat’s Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Ayub Khan in September 1960.

In the Fifties and Sixties, the water from these rivers were vital as both the nation’s, Bharat and Pakistan, were largely agrarian with hardly any industrialisation.

The treaty gives the control over the waters of three “eastern” (flowing) rivers – the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, with an annual flow of 41 billion m3 (approximately 33 million acre.ft) to Bharat, while the control over the waters of the three “Western” (flowing) rivers – the Indus, Chenab and Jhelam with an annual flow of 99 billion m3 to Pakistan.

It indicates that Bharat has 20% of the total water carried out by the Indus system whereas Pakistan has 80%.

As per the provision, per article 1 of IWT, any river or its tributary and it’s catchment area of the Indus system of rivers, that are not part of the other five rivers, is part of the Indus River system. It includes it’s creeks, delta channels, connecting lakes etc.

Bharat, following the guidelines of the IWT, is granted limited use from the water of the “Western” rivers. It utilises the water for limited irrigation and unlimited non-consumption use, for applications such as Fish culture, Floating of Property, Power generation, Navigation etc. There is limited scope for constructing projects over the Western rivers, by Bharat.

While Pakistan has rights over the Water of Jhelum, Chenab and Indus, Annexure C of the IWT allows Bharat to utilise the same water for Agricultural use, till the river crosses over into Pakistan.

The Annexure D allows it to build “run of the river” hydropower projects, meaning projects not requiring live storage of water.

Under the treaty, a permanent Indus Commission was formed, with a Commissioner from each country, in order to maintain a channel for communication and a mechanism was provided for resolving any obstacles in implementation of the treaty.

In the hierarchical arrangement, in the initial stage, the disputes are to be solved by amicable bilateral discussions If unsolved, the second stage was appointment of a neutral expert and lastly, the solution could be brought by the Court of Arbitration.

A transition period of ten years was permitted, during which Bharat was to supply water to Pakistan from its Eastern rivers, until Pakistan was able to build the Canal system for utilisation of water from the Western rivers.

Per article 5.1 of IWT, Bharat agreed to make a fixed contribution of UK pound Sterling of Sixty Two Million and Sixty Thousand only or 125 Metric Tons of Gold – when Gold standards were followed, towards the construction of Canal system for irrigation from Western rivers, in the province of Punjab of Pakistan. Bharat paid in ten equal annual instalments, despite the Indo-Pak war in 1965.

Both the countries also agreed for exchange of data and co-operate in the optimum utilisation of water from the Indus Water System.

The Indus Water Treaty is considered the most successful water sharing endeavours.

The preamble of the treaty recognises the rights and obligations of each country in the optimum utilisation of water from the Indus system in the spirit of goodwill, friendship and co-operation. Yet, Pakistan fears that Bharat could potentially create floods or droughts in Pakistan, especially during war.

This treaty, however, is based on unequivocal distribution of water between two nations.

From the Indus System, Bharat got nearly 41 billion M3 at 16% whereas Pakistan gets nearly 218 billion M3 at 84% !!!

Roughly, as per the treaty, Bharat could utilise the waters of Western rivers (till they flowed in Bharatiya territories) for irrigating the area, drinking purpose or anything else other than consuming or storing the water.

Seven Lakh One Thousand acres of land, Bharat could irrigate, with storage not exceeding 2.0 billion m3 and nominal flood storage capacity of 0.93 billion m3.

Thus, these water allocation made to Jammu and Kashmir state, is meagre to meet its irrigation water requirements, whereas the treaty permitted enough water to irrigate 80.52% of the cultivated land in the Indus river basin in Pakistan.

The storage capacity permitted by the treaty for hydropower generation is less than the annual silt, that would accumulate in the reservoirs if the total hydro potential of the state was to be exploited fully.

It is besides the point that Pakistan too, is losing additional benefits by disallowing moderate water storage in upstream J&K, whose water could ultimately be released to Pakistan for its use, which could replace with few dam requirements in its territory.

But, for what We know of Pakistan, political (and religious vengeance) vengeance has higher significance than downright economical as well as socially impactful developments.

Instead, Pakistan has been planning to build multi-purpose water reservoirs with massive storage such as 4500 MW Diamer-Bhasha Dam, 3600 MW Kalabagh Dam, 600 MW Akhori Dam, Dasu Dam, Bunji Dam, Thakot Dam, Patan Dam etc. projects, initiating huge population resettlement.

Pakistan also constructed river training works in such a manner that reduces river flooding in their regions and enhances flooding in Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, violating Article 4 (3A) of IWT.

In case of any dam break, low-lying areas of Kutch in Gujarat, would face unprecedented water deluge or submergence, as these dams are located in highly active seismic zones.

The Kishanganga river is the major tributary of the west-flowing Jhelum river. It originates from the union territory of J&K and flows into Pakistan occupied Kashmir, joining near Muzaffarabad. On entering Pakistan, it is known as river Neelum.

On the Bharatiya side,the Kishanganga hydroelectric project, a run of the river scheme, was launched to create a power plant in the Jhelum river basin. It is situated near Dharmahama, 5 km north of Bandjpore in the Kashmir valley, with an installed capacity of 330 MW.

Construction of the project began in 2007 and it was Targeted to be completed by 2016 but the ongoing project was halted due to objections raised by Pakistan. Eventually, the matter went to the Court of Arbitration in 2013. The court ruled that Bharat could divert water for the power generation, while ensuring a minimum flow of 9 cumecs to Pakistan.

Pakistan’s dispute over diversion of water from one tributary to another, as it would hamper the flow of water, from river Kishanganga to the river Neelum in Neelum valley, obstructing the similar Neelum – Jhelum project.

But, the experts did not agree with this contention.

John Briscoe, a former World Bank Water Expert, opined that the far-sighted Bharatiya as well as Pakistani engineers, who had drafted the treaty, had anticipated the possibility of such a situation and hence, had specified in paragraph 15 of Annexure of D states.

” Where a plant is located on a tributary of the Jhelum on which Pakistan has any agricultural use or hydroelectric use, the water released below the plant, may be delivered, if necessary, into another tributary but only to the extent that the than existing agricultural use of hydroelectric use by Pakistan on the former tributary would not be adversely affected “

But, Pakistan adamantly refused to budge from the denial mode and maintained that the diversion of water was prohibited.

Asif H. Kazi, a Water expert, declared, “the treaty absolutely forbids India from undertaking their project.”

Apart from this remonstrance, Pakistan also had apprehensions that this project would affect the flow of the waters into Pakistan occupied Kashmir and impact their own Neelum – Jhelum project.

Again Experts estimated that the impact of the Kishanganga project would hardly be around 10%.

Pakistan approached the Court of Arbitration but it rejected Pakistan’s “ambulatory” interpretation and upheld Bharat’s right to proceed with the Kishanganga project. But it put forth that the treaty and customary international law would make it obligatory to ensure a minimum environmental flow, along the Kishanganga/ Neelum riverbed. Initially, the court determined the minimum flow of water, to be maintained to be 12 cumecs. Later, it set down at 9 cumecs.

Finally, the Kishanganga hydroelectric project was inaugurated by the Bharat’s Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji on the 19th September 2018.

Similarly, the Ratle hydroelectric power project, of 850MW, was launched in 2013 on the Chenab river in the Kishtwar district of Jammu & Kashmir.

The project is situated approximately 210 kms away from Jammu airport and 140 kms away from Udhampur railway station.

The preliminary works such as construction of access roads and diversion were started but the project was stalled due to multiple reasons.

The project was commissioned to GVK as the project contractor but the disagreement between the then government of Jammu & Kashmir and GVK, hampered the implementation.

After a hiatus of more than six years, the run of the river hydropower project has now been re-started as a joint venture between the Jammu & Kashmir State Power Development Corporation (JKSPDC) and Bharat’s state owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).

The public Investment Board (PIB) of the Ministry of Finance, Government of Bharat has approved the investment of Rs. 52.82 Billion for the completion of the Ratle hydroelectric project in September 2020.

The current dispute on the Ratle hydroelectric project is mainly on the issue, whether Bharat is entitled to draw down the water in the reservoirs below the dead storage level in any event other than an unforeseen emergency. There are four other technical questions on the design of the Bharatiya projects. Even though Bharat has consistently maintained that the design would continue to supply Pakistan, the 43 million acre feet every day, as agreed upon under the treaty. Bharat has time and again reassured them and followed the practice, even when the two countries were at war.

In the initial stage, Bharat made continuous attempts to hold bilateral talks and resolve the dispute. But, it did not avail any fruitful result and in 2015 and Pakistan requested for appointment of a neutral expert to examine its technical objections to Bharat’s Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric projects. (HEP’s).

Astoundingly, Pakistan unilaterally retracted this request and proposed that a Court of Arbitration adjudicate on its objections.

It is believed that despite repeated efforts by Bharat to find an amicable way forward, Pakistan refused to discuss the issue during the five meetings of the Permanent Commission from 2017 to 2022. Instead, they constantly stressed upon the World Bank, for initiating action on both the neutral expert and Court of Arbitration process. But formation of parallel enquiry commission is not covered under any provision of IWT.

Bharat, hence made a separate and yet another request for implementation of a neutral expert.

The World Bank acknowledged this in 2016 and took a decision to pause the appointment of two parallel enquiry processes and appealed to Bharat and Pakistan, to adopt a mutually agreeable way out.

Recently, on the 25th January 2023, Bharat has issued a notice to Pakistan, seeking a review and modification of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). They have cited Pakistan’s “intransigence” in resolving disputes over the Kishanganga and Ratle (on Kishanganga – Jhelum and Chenab rivers respectively.) Hydroelectric Projects.

The Indus Water Treaty was charted out in 1960. The six rivers of the Indus Water system, rise out from the upper riparian of Himalaya mountain range. The Eastern as well as the Western rivers, while in Bharat flow at comparatively higher (upper) riparian, in the hilly region of Jammu – Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. It enters on comparatively a lower riparian in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh. It flows in further lower riparian when it meets the Arabian Sea, near the Kori creek of Kutch.

Sindh and Kutch, both situated on the parallel plains, divided by the International border, carved out in 1947. But till approximately two centuries ago, Indus water flowed through Kutch. The subversive earthquake In 1819 diverted the flow of river Indus depriving Kutch of the much needed water supply from the Indus Water.

While excavating in the North Western region of Kutch, the relics of Indus valley civilization are found. The language spoken in Kutch, the Kutchi dialect, is very similar to the Sindhi language. People of Kutch had more trading relations with Karachi and Sindh and less with Gujarat or Saurashtra before Independence. The Shepherds of North Western region of Kutch – of Lakhpat, Abdasa, Banni, regularly migrated to Sindh during famine and returned when the season changed.

Apart from clear indications in the Rig Veda and Mahabharata, there is a mention that King Alexander had travelled on the banks of Indus, till Kutch in 325 BC.

Additionally, Al Baruni, Colonel Toad, and Captain Raika have also mentioned vibrant Kutch culture in their travelogues. In the map, illustrated in” Memories of Leftenant Burns” written in 1831, post the 1819 earthquake, the Kutch region is shown as the Eastern Mouth of Indus.

Infact, it is clearly mentioned in the Indus Water Treaty, signed by the President of Bharat on the 28th December 1960, that Kutch is a part of the Indus Basin.

But, all these while, Kutch has remained arid and dry landmass and has not received any benefits from Indus System’s water that flourishes Pakistan.

Firstly, the most significant question that arises in the minds of today’s generation, is unjust distribution of water between Bharat and Pakistan. Pakistan has received nearly 84% of water share whereas Bharat has a meagre 16%.

Most of the terms agreed upon by Pandit Nehru, back in 1960’s have placed Bharat in difficult situations, by Pakistan.

At the time of counsel, during the formation of Indus Water Treaty, as per the international principles, laws and traditions, the insistence was laid upon providing benefit of water to the people residing on river banks, irrespective of consideration of national borders.

Accordingly, taking into account the geographical composition and the flow of water from the rivers, a design for exchange of water, had been laid out. Under that outline, a plan to assign water to Kutch from Kotri, situated on the Indus river in Jamshoro district in Sindh, Pakistan via canal. (The detailed study of this plan can be obtained from Sindhu Waters and Kutch by Mahesh Thakkar and Shashikant Thakkar) but somehow, the plan could not be executed due to mutual disagreements.

And, for years, Kutch remained thirsty and parched as well as barren land, victim of political antagonism.

It’s a fact that history doesn’t lie. It presents a mirror image of our mindset and actions. Glancing over the history of Seventy Five years of independence and partition before, it is ironic that in order to obtain freedom from British clutches, Bharat has had to pay a huge price.

Pakistan, since its formation has acted with animosity towards Bharat and adopted stubbornness and embroilment, in solving any mutual issues.

Unfortunately, Pandit Nehru in initial years as Prime Minister, remained an idealist and pawn of global opinion. Hence, had to bow down beyond justice, to the designs of Britain and the other developed nations.

More unfortunately, the long lineage of Governments that came to power till recent years, hardly paid any attention towards solving this colossal unjust distribution of water.

During the AB Vajpayee era as Prime Minister, interlinking of rivers projects, which had stalled for the longest period and had remained on paper, was finally implemented.

The programme envisaged transfer of water from the water-excess basins to the water-deficient basins, interlinking 37 rivers.

Taking this major mission forward, Narendra Modi ji, during his tenure as Chief minister of Gujarat, launched SAUNI yojna (Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation yojana).

The state of Gujarat was facing severe water scarcity and several regions remain arid and receive scarce rainfall, thus facing frequent droughts. People of Saurashtra and Kutch regions were facing acute shortage of water for drinking and irrigation and were forced to migrate to other regions. Almost 70 percent of dams, reservoirs and other water bodies of this region had become dry and a large area of the Kutch-Saurashtra region was dependent on water supply through tankers. In a bid to mitigate this problem, the Gujarat government undertook the development of a state water supply grid,Swarnim Gujarat Saurashtra–Kutch Water Grid Project and through 115 dams, reservoirs and canals the rivers were rejuvenated.

Had the political will, while signing the Indus Water Treaty prevailed, Bharat could have got just distribution of water share and the region of Kutch, very much a part of the Indus river basin, would not have had to suffer for a long time, till Narmada water could reach it, to flourish the lives of the land.

Bharat has paid enormous price for the Utopian rule with fanciful idealism, in the initial period of independent Bharat.

Today, almost Eight Crore acre foot water of the all Six Indus Water system has been flowing in Pakistan. 3.3 Crore acre foot water of the Eastern rivers have been utilised by Pakistan and help the nation to prosper. Yet, Pakistan does not refrain from promoting terrorism in Bharat. The Uri and Pulwama attacks have been blot on the essence of mutual co-operation and brotherhood.

The experts have several times opined that if Pakistan is to be taught a lesson, the best way is to annual the Indus Water Treaty!!!

But, now this is “Naya Bharat”…

In the aftermath of the Uri attack in 2016, Bharat threatened to revoke the Indus Water Treaty. Hon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji declared, “Blood and Water can not flow together.”

However, Bharat has not acted on this threat but it has restarted the Tulbul project on the Jhelum river in the Kashmir valley, which was earlier put on halt, due to Pakistan’s objections.

One thought on “Navigating Water Diplomacy: India’s Strategic Shift with the Indus Water Treaty

  1. Why can’t we just revoke this treaty.Both Pakistan and China are our biggest bane in growing and developing those areas. Anyway, we still have managed to solve these issues by building hydraulic dams.The Tulbul project sound great for Jhammu and Kashmir.

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