Should India terminate the Indus Water Treaty ?

Dr SK Deolankar

India and Pakistan signed the ‘Indus (Sindhu) Water Treaty’ in 1960. It provides the basis for water distribution for the Sindhu River and its three tributaries. India recently issued a notice to Pakistan to amend this Treaty. This is unprecedented since India had always maintained an accommodative stance despite numerous provocations from its archrival – Pakistan. However, if Pakistan does not mend its ways, the future looks grim for the country already reeling under acute inflationary pressure. The situation with electricity generation is no better. Under such circumstances, if India decides to utilise 20% of the water as provisioned in the Treaty, it will have grave consequences for Pakistan.

Indus Water Treaty

On 25th January India issued a notice to Pakistan to amend the Indus Water Treaty. It is the first instance in the past 62 years when India issued a notice to Pakistan to convey its intent to amend the water-sharing agreement. India also notified the World Bank, which arranged and negotiated this Treaty between the neighbouring countries.

There are more than 200 rivers which cross the national borders. These countries have signed various agreements for amicable water distribution. These days, water distribution and consumption have become the cause of contention for many of these countries. For example, some rivers originate in China and flow into India. China withholds information on their water levels and floods from India. In addition, China has started constructing a major dam on the mighty Brahmaputra River (the third largest river in the world) near the Chinese border. In addition, it has diverted the flow of other rivers and tributaries. While China has resorted to such pressure tactics, India has, so far, maintained an accommodative stance concerning Pakistan.

Background of the Treaty

The World Bank officials visited India to study the water situation and published some research articles. These articles acted as a catalyst for this Treaty which laid out the rights and obligations of both countries concerning the use of waters of the Indus River System. Consequently, India and Pakistan signed the ‘Indus Water Treaty’ in 1960, which forms the basis for water distribution between them for six rivers. Three of these rivers flow into Pakistan from Jammu and Kashmir, while the rest flow from India’s Punjab (into Pakistan). These are collectively called the Western Rivers and Eastern Rivers respectively. The World Bank brokered this Treaty.

The demand for such an agreement was not new even then. However, it gained momentum after Partition. When Pakistan attacked India in 1947, India briefly tried to withhold water from rivers and canals that flowed into Pakistan. This resulted in a controversy. Consequently, India and Pakistan entered a water-sharing agreement called the ‘Inter-Dominion Accord of May 4, 1948’, which required India to provide water to Pakistan in exchange for annual payments from Pakistan. It meant that both countries agreed that Pakistan would not get water from India for free.

Despite this, the Treaty brokered by the World Bank in 1960 did not have such a provision. Since the ‘Indus Water Treaty’ was signed by the then Prime Minister of India – Jawaharlal Nehru, and the then President of Pakistan – Mohammad Ayub Khan, in September 1960, it is not surprising that it was a pro-Pakistan agreement. Some hailed it as India’s generous gift to Pakistan and reflected India’s kind nature. However, we should note that the Treaty does not contain any provisions for its breach.

Moreover, it restricts India from constructing dams on these rivers for hydroelectric projects. Although Pakistan has gone to war with India on three occasions in the past 63 years, India has not breached these provisions so far.

Who should have more say ?

These rivers flow into Pakistan from India, which makes India Upper Riparian and Pakistan Lower Riparian. The Upper Riparian country is always entitled to additional rights. For example, concerning the Brahmaputra River, China is an Upper Riparian country while India is a Lower Riparian country. Brahmaputra River flows from China into India. China has unilaterally constructed many dams for internal water supplies and hydroelectric power projects. China has been utilising the water for its benefit as much as possible.

On the contrary, India took a liberal stance and shared water with Pakistan without any restrictions despite its commanding position. The Treaty grants Pakistan the right to utilise 80% of the water from the Western Rivers while India gets the remaining 20%. However, the Treaty offers India additional rights over the Eastern Rivers. India has not even utilised 20% of the water from the Western Rivers. So far, India has barely consumed just 5% of its share due to lack of required infrastructure.

This implies that Pakistan has utilised over 95% of the water from the Western Rivers. We should note that no other country has signed a one-sided agreement such as the ‘Indus Water Treaty’.

Why did India issue a notice to Pakistan ?

The Indus Water Treaty grants India rights to commission run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects with certain caveats. Accordingly, India has commissioned the ‘Kishanganga and Ratle Hydroelectric Projects’ in Jammu & Kashmir that utilise water from the Western Rivers. However, Pakistan has opposed these projects. In 2015, it approached the World Bank and sought the appointment of an independent expert to address its objections to these hydroelectric projects. However, the very next year, Pakistan retracted the request and sought a Court of Arbitration to adjudicate its concerns. We must realise that such arbitrary and unilateral actions violate the Indus Water Treaty, and hence, India requested the World Bank to appoint an independent expert to address its concerns.

Despite India’s repeated attempts to hold talks with Pakistan, the latter refused to have a meaningful dialogue in five meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission between 2017 and 2022. This stance of Pakistan compelled India to issue a notice to Pakistan to amend the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty.

The reason for Pakistan’s discomfort is the upcoming 850 MW hydroelectric project India started to commission in 2013. India has accelerated the project work since 2021 and has earmarked nearly Rs 5,000 crores to complete this ambitious project without further delay.
Pakistan wants this project to get delayed. Hence, it demanded a Court of Arbitration to intervene. The cost of this project has already increased by Rs 10,000 crores compared to the initial budget. Pakistan realises that if the arbitration delays the project further, it will adversely impact India’s appetite to pursue this further because of the cost escalations. India quickly realised Pakistan’s hidden motive and issued a notice to amend the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty to protect its national interests.

India seeks amendments to resolve any contentious issue amicably in a phased manner. India strongly believes that an independent expert and the Arbitration Court cannot opine on such matters at the same time.


The issues we face concerning the water distribution of rivers that cross national borders did not even exist 60-70 years ago. Technology has brought about many changes to the water utility. It renders the Indus Water Treaty less relevant. Moreover, despite this and even after repeated wars with Pakistan, directly and indirectly via terrorist attacks on India, India remained firmly committed to the provisions of this dated Treaty. India’s generous and gracious stance is the sole reason the Treaty gets honoured despite multiple provocations by Pakistan.
This Treaty grants Pakistan the right to raise disputes with India over water distribution practices. Until now, India has been kind and accommodating. It treated Pakistan favourably over the needs of its people for both water and electricity. However, Pakistan remained ungrateful. Moreover, it has raised objections to these hydroelectric projects.

If Pakistan does not mend its ways, it will further deteriorate its economy, which is already on its deathbed. Pakistan must realise that more than 25% of its agriculture relies on the water that flows from India. It includes the farms of elite political leaders in the Punjab province. This over-reliance on India presents an unprecedented opportunity for India to teach Pakistan a lesson for its reckless and adamant behaviour.

These days, Pakistan is grappling with an acute shortage of electricity which has added fuel to the fire. Under such circumstances, if India decides to utilise the entire 20% of the water granted by the Treaty, by completing these mega hydroelectric projects, then Pakistan will have to pay a hefty price soon.

These days, India faces water shortage for agriculture, irrigation and industries in Jammu & Kashmir since it does not utilise its share of water from these rivers. India can mitigate this water shortage in Jammu & Kashmir by consuming its share of the river water. These rivers can also boost electricity generation, which holds the key to the overall development of the Nation.

– Dr Shailendra K Deolankar (Foreign Policy and International Affairs Analyst.

Ref.: Facebook, February 2022)

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If India decides to utilise 20% of the water as provisioned in the Treaty, it will have grave consequences for Pakistan !