India's Approach to Addressing Water Disputes with Pakistan: Exploring Options for Renegotiating the Indus Water Treaty

February 28, 2023

Pakistan must be prepared to renegotiate the treaty to accommodate new challenges especially mainstreaming climate change in IWT for its own benefit.  

The only example of a water-sharing agreement between two arch rivals in the world that defies the ‘water war’ hypothesis is being put to modification by its signatory member. When India issued a notice for modification of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT) to Pakistan on January 25, Pakistan observers incorrectly termed it India’s weaponization of water. The IWT, which survives full-scale wars, limited war, proxy wars, Parliament attacks, surgical strikes, and above and beyond the hostile posture of 62 years between two belligerent neighbours, what has prompted India to modify the treaty now?  Is it not viable to deliberate the constraints of the functionality of the IWT for six decades by parties?  

From the outset, let’s be clear that India is not asking for the unilateral scrapping of the treaty as erroneously put forward. However, Pakistan has opposed the notice by stating that India’s unilateral attempt is misleading. Understandably, since the Parliament attacks in 2001, as a knee-jerk reaction to any hostile activities of Pakistan, the allies and members of the successive NDA governments (I, II & III) usually remarked on the abrogation of the IWT. The modifications and or amendments to the IWT are absolutely plausible only by the consent of both parties to the treaty, i.e., India and Pakistan. The role of the World Bank is in the IWT, not as a party but as a guarantor or facilitator or independent arbitrator of the IWT.    

Once a former foreign secretary of India wrote that the IWT was a triumph, but a triumph of the lesser evil. The 1960 IWT provides India unrestricted access to waters in the eastern rivers - Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, and their tributaries. India is also allowed to use the waters of the western rivers - Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, and their tributaries - without consuming them and in a way that doesn’t obstruct the flow of the rivers to Pakistan.

In fact, the Parliament Standing Committee on Water Resources in 2021, in its Report- Flood Management and International Treaties - has recommended that the IWT must be reconsulted to address new realities in the Indus basin. In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also formed an inter-ministerial panel to review the IWT under public pressure. When the treaty was negotiated for almost nine years, it focused on allocating rivers and their waters. The quantity supersedes the quality. Even the Indus River Dolphins have not been spared against the massive irrigation demands in both countries. Therefore, the Committee has recommended to the government of India that ‘there is a need to renegotiate the treaty to establish some kind of institutional structure or legislative framework to address the impact of climate change on water availability in the Indus basin and other challenges. As written in the treaty, the IWT can be reviewed occasionally with consent from both parties.     

Since 2005, India’s unilateral initiatives of run-of-the-river hydel projects – 900 MW Baglihar Hydropower on the Chenab River, 330 MW Kishenganga hydropower on the Jhelum River and 850 MW Ralte Hydropower on Chenab River, which are compliant with the IWT as claimed by India, have been delayed, stalled or referred to external intervention by Pakistan. Examples of such discord over other projects list include Tulbul Navigation Project, Miyar, Pakuldul, and Lower Kalnai hydel projects, river training work on the Ravi River, and so on. Under the IWT, the Indus Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), which meets annually in alternate countries’ venues, has been unable to resolve bilaterally most technical aspects of the disagreements. India perceives the existing mechanism as the PIC has either been ineffective or failed to address the bilateral concerns.

Further, Articles 9-12 of the IWT provide for the settlement of differences, disputes, and emergencies, among others, in sequence. Apart from a nod from the World Bank, it has to pass through three phases - PIC, Neutral Expert and Court of Arbitration. Pakistan resorting to external intervention, neutral experts or court of arbitration, or the habit of internationalising strictly those aspects that can be resolved bilaterally in a graded approach have squarely irked the Indian establishment seen in the Media briefing of External Affairs on February 3. During the briefing, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson was exasperated that the ‘World Bank is not in a position to interpret the treaty for us.’ This is a major departure in the history of the IWT. On the same day, the first hearing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague began at the behest of Pakistan, of which India is not a party. Meanwhile, Pakistan has referred four times to external intervention in the last 17 years of the IWT. This ‘intransigence’ attitude of Pakistan is one of the primary reasons India should seek amendments to the treaty.   

Thus, projects, which are in discord, are in a state of incomplete in Kashmir. After removing Article 370, the credibility of the leadership of Prime Minister Modi to deliver in Kashmir is being closely watched. The government argues that if completed on time, most of these hydel projects would boost the holistic development of at least the Kashmir valley. While the Indian Prime Minister wants the developmental projects to be completed as soon as possible, the provisions of the IWT have derailed the fruits of hydel projects. The government sees the treaty restricts its manoeuvre capacity over the construction of dams. Getting rid of such provisions in the IWT would benefit the present NDA government. Also, many in the government aim to get away with this last harbinger of a cooperative functional agreement with rival Pakistan. Possibly, the Indian establishment considers the prevailing economic crisis in the neighbouring country would persuade for renegotiation. Perhaps, the IWT is a Nehruvian legacy that needs to be untagged!       

It is a fact that there is a loss of trust when it comes to water quantity flowing in rivers from India to Pakistan. As usual lower riparian fear of any belligerent neighbouring country, Pakistan considers dam building by India in upper stretches would cause flooding, droughts, water scarcity, disruption of energy supplies and maybe civil unrest. India precisely perceives this against the Chinese dam building on the Brahmaputra. India considers that both countries have the potential to resolve the technical aspect bilaterally. While Pakistan, on the other hand, being lower riparian and its high dependence on the Indus River System as the country’s only lifeline, conceives that it may not protect its national interest if negotiating alone with India in the prevailing condition. Pakistan wants the treaty to be left as it is.

Author Note
Dr Avilash Roul, Senior Fellow, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict. His expertise and focus areas are climate change & resilience, water security and peri-urban sustainability.