The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960

A map showing the flow of rivers as per the treaty

“One bright spot … in a very depressing world picture that we see so often”. This was a famous statement that the former US president, Dwight Eisenhower used to describe the Indus Waters Treaty, one of the most “successful international treaties has survived frequent tensions, including conflict, and has provided a framework for irrigation and hydropower development”. 

Historical Contextualisation: 

A water-sharing treaty, between India and Pakistan, it was ratified by the two countries a little after the partition in the year 1960, by India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the then Pakistani Prime Minister Ayub Khan. 

The Indian Partition lines were drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer and administrator, in the short span of five weeks. At the time, a lot of challenges with the way the territories were unusually partitioned remained unforeseen, only to cause conflicts of massive scales, post the finalisation of the map. One of the prominent issues with the map that was brought to light by the newly formed governments of India and Pakistan was the issue of water sharing between the two newly formed countries.

During the Raj in India, the British Administration had enforced a system in the 1800s known as the Indus River System which irrigated a vast majority of the land. The Indus itself originates in what is known as the Autonomous Tibet Region of China, flows through Kashmir, Pakistan and joins the Arabian Sea.

However, as a result of the partition between the two nations, the Indus River System was on the brink of collapse. Post-independence, to temporarily settle water disputes, the “Standstill Agreement” (1947) was created between the two affected nations of India and Pakistan in which headworks were designated to India for use and the canals were designated to Pakistan. Given that this was just a short term agreement, another agreement was subsequently drawn up known as the Inter Dominion Accord (1948) under which it was mandated that India was to supply water to Pakistan in return for regular annual payments. This arrangement, however, was also largely unsuccessful due to the unwillingness of both parties to arrive at a compromise. 

Several years later, in the year 1960, post intense discussions between India and Pakistan, a treaty was drawn known as the Indus Waters Treaty that was ratified by both countries, with the “advice and financing from the World Bank”. To this day it is hailed as one of the most commendable water-sharing projects in history. 

About the Indus Waters Treaty: 

The Indus Waters Treaty itself is a treaty that ensures water distribution on the basis of need to India and Pakistan. Undivided India had six rivers passing through it: Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Indus, Jhelum and the Chenab. Post the partition, the Indus Waters Treaty mandated that the three Eastern Rivers could be used by India, while the three Western Rivers could be used by Pakistan. 

The Eastern Rivers (Used by India) are Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. The Western Rivers (Used by Pakistan) are Indus, Jhelum, Chenab. 

Restrictions imposed on both countries that are party to the treaty: 

Despite the fact that both countries are allowed to use the water that rivers provide there are certain regulations that must be upheld by both countries party to the treaty. Neither nation is allowed to divert or modify the “natural drainage of the river flow” or can cause alteration in water supply for the other country. However, both nations can use the water for a variety of purposes such as “domestic, agricultural, and power generation purposes” and have unfettered access to the water for civilian use as well. 

Over the last few decades, there have been a few notable yet minor disagreements in the building of infrastructure by the two countries that have caused threats of violations of the treaty. Prominent instances include the building of the Tulbul project by India and Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) Project by Pakistan.

The Tulbul project, proposed by India, is an infrastructural project that plays the role of a “navigation lock-cum-control structure” that was supposed to be built at the top of the Jhelum river, a proposal which was opposed by Pakistan. This project was to serve as an “intrastate channel for goods and people”. Despite the fact that building on the Jhelum River is not a violation as per the Indus Water Treaty due to the fact that the flow and course of the river is not changed, this is a project that was opposed by Pakistan due to the fact that it was said to derail the Pakistan project “The Triple Canal” which was to connect the Jhelum and the Chenab to the “Bari Doab canal”. Pakistan’s opposition to the Tulbul project is also said to stem from the fact that Pakistan believes it could affect the agriculture in the region and could pose a “threat of flooding” in the stated region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. 

The other project that caused a fair amount of disagreement between the two countries was the Pakistani Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) Project, a project that was built without India’s permission running through the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. “The purpose of LBOD was to bypass the saline and polluted water which was not fit for agriculture use to reach the sea via Rann of Kutch area without passing through its Indus delta.

Post the Pulwama attack last year, tensions between the two countries reached an all-time high as India decided to retaliate to the Pulwama attack. Despite the fact that India has full access to the Eastern Rivers, over the years, India has been able to use only a small portion of the vast water supplies that later flow into Pakistan. India made the decision to use the water available to them entirely. “We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab” – said the Minister Nitin Gadkari in a Twitter post addressed to Indians last year. 

Over the years, the Indus Waters Treaty has played a vital role in ensuring a fair and equitable supply of water in India and Pakistan. Despite the occasional conflict surrounding the terms of the treaty over the last few decades, this is considered one of the most effective water distribution treaties to have been created in history which plays an essential role in “confidence-building” between the two nations. Although the two countries are facing significant tensions in the present day, it is unlikely that in the near future either country will violate the obligations outlined in this long-standing treaty, one that many would argue has stood the test of time. 


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