What is Indus Water Treaty

  • Indian and Pakistani officials are currently in the midst of a two day meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission, starting Monday. The meeting is likely to address the conflict between the two countries over the construction of the Kishenganga and Ratle hydroelectric plants on Kishenganga and Chenab rivers respectively. Signed in 1960, the IWT is an agreement that was signed by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the then President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan, marking out control over the six rivers running across the Indus basin following partition of the subcontinent.
  • Internationally, the IWT is seen as one of the most successful cases of conflict resolution especially considering the fact that it has stayed in place despite the two countries having been engaged in four wars. However, between the two countries, it has seeded dissatisfaction and conflicts regarding its interpretation and implementation. As the two countries look forward to engaging in discussion over the current dispute, here’s a look at the historical background and nature of the treaty and the conflicts it has given rise to.

What is the Indus Water Treaty (IWT)?

  • The six rivers of the Indus basin originate in Tibet and flow across the Himalayan ranges to end in the Arabian sea south of Karachi. Preceding partition, it was one common network for both India and Pakistan. However, while partition managed to draw terrestrial borders, the question of how to divide the Indus waters was something that needed to be worked out. Since the rivers flowed from India to Pakistan, the latter was unsurprisingly threatened by the prospect of being fed by the former.
  • Initially, the issue of water sharing was sorted out by the Inter-Dominion accord of May 4, 1948 that laid out that India would release enough waters to Pakistan in return for annual payments from the latter. The problems of this arrangement was soon realised and it was considered necessary to find an alternative solution.
  • Eventually, in 1960, the two countries reached a decisive step with the intervention of the World Bank wherein precise details were laid out regarding the way in which the waters would be distributed. The components of the treaty were fairly simple. The three western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Indus) were allocated to Pakistan while India was given control over the three eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej). While India could use the western rivers for consumption purpose, restrictions were placed on building of storage systems. The treaty states that aside of certain specific cases, no storage and irrigation systems can be built by India on the western rivers.

Why are the two countries dissatisfied by the treaty?

  • From the Indian point of view, the basic dissatisfaction with the treaty arises from the fact that it prevents the country from building any storage systems on the western rivers. Even though the treaty lays out that under certain exceptional circumstances storage systems can be built, the complaint raised by India is that Pakistan deliberately stops any such effort due to the political rivalry it shares with India. The matter is further aggravated by the fact that the western rivers lie in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been a subject of tussle between the two countries since independence. Since the treaty’s conception in 1960, the two countries have been embroiled in conflicts over a number of projects including the Salal hydroelectric project on the Chenab, the Tulbul project, the Kishenganga and Ratle hydroelectric plants.
  • While the tense political relations between the two countries have to a large extent resulted in conflicts over the treaty, to a large extent it is the framing of the treaty itself that has led to grievances. Water policy expert, Ramaswamy R. Iyer writes the following in his work “Indus treaty: A different view”:
  • One can immediately see how differences arise. One party can claim to be in full conformity with the criteria laid down in the treaty, and the other party can say that this is not the case.
  • In the first place, as pointed out by Iyer, the treaty is highly technical leading to far ranging divergences between the two countries in terms of interpretations. For instance, while the treaty says that storage systems can be built but to a limited extent, the technical details makes it increasingly difficult to conclude under what circumstances projects can be carried out.
  • Added to this inherent limitation within the treaty is the political situation between the two countries. As per the writings of Iyer, while India on the one hand tries to make maximum use of the breathing space provided by the treaty to build projects on the western rivers, Pakistan on account of its suspicions towards India keeps an extra keen eye on every technical aspect of the project and tries its absolute best to get it suspended.

What is the ongoing conflict about?

  • The current conflict is over the Kishenganga dam project and the Ratle hydroelectric project. The Kishenganga hydroelectric plant is a $864 million worth of project that was initiated in 2007 and was projected to be completed by 2016. Pakistan took the project to the Court of Arbitration in 2010 raising six issues that they say violate the treaty. In 2013, the Court of Arbitration ruled India to go ahead with the project under the condition that a minimum water flow to Pakistan of 9 cubic metres per second is maintained. On several other issues however, no agreement between the two countries could be reached.
  • The 850 MW Hydroelectric power station named Ratle was initiated in June 2013 on the Chenab river. While laying the foundation stone of the project, former prime minister Manmohan Singh had said that it will help in the development of Jammu and Kashmir. However, Pakistan had once again raised objection at a meeting of the Indus commission held in September 2013. to the project on grounds of violation to the IWT.
  • Following the Uri attack in September 2016, India decided to not hold a meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission so long as Pakistan does not stop funding terrorist activities. The decision led to further delay in concluding the future of the two projects. With India now agreeing to hold the Permanent Indus Commission meeting, an agreement over the two projects is much awaited.

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