On Pakistan-India Water Dispute

Scarcity of water is a huge problem faced by many countries of the world, especially the developing ones. The effects of environmental degradation and poor management of available water resource have made water one of the scarcest resources in poor economies. As a result, there is a struggle for this resource and this sometimes leads to conflicts. The India-Pakistan water conflict arises from struggle for scarce resources. Growing scarcity of water resources, increasing population and poor management of water resources in India and Pakistan has resulted in an increasing demand for water resources.

History of Dispute

The history of water dispute between India and Pakistan is not new. Analysts are of the opinion that highly sensitive and charged water issues between Pakistan and India have emerged out of the way the 1947 partition lines were drawn. A seemingly minor change, but one with far-reaching consequences, was introduced in the partition map, in violation of all principles laid down by the British government. It came about at the very last minute when, upon the insistence of the Indian leaders, the partition award turned over to India three vital districts that were originally allocated to Pakistan; with the sole objective of providing India with access to Kashmir. The three remaining western rivers on which Pakistan now relies upon all originate in or pass through Kashmir before entering Pakistan. In other words, India, after having obtained the waters of the three eastern rivers through Indus Waters Treaty is now trying to take control of three western rivers as well.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) signed in Karachi on September 19, 1960, by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan’s President Muhammad Ayub Khan and Mr W.A.B. Illif of the World Bank has shown a remarkable endurance and resilience in withstanding the jolts of the Indo-Pak turbulent relations. The treaty allocates the water of the three western rivers of the Indus Basin to Pakistan, while the eastern rivers have been assigned to India for utilisation. The treaty allows India to tap the hydroelectric potential of the Pakistan specific rivers; with the important proviso that generation of power should not interfere with the timings and the quantity of flow of waters into Pakistan.

Over the years, India built its irrigation system which could serve the needs of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. On the other side, the fact that the source of the rivers of the Indus basin were in India resulted in fear of droughts and famine in Pakistan.

Geography of the Conflict

The Indus River originates in the Tibetan plateau, making its 3,200km journey southwards along the entire length of Pakistan, before emptying into the Arabian Sea at Thatta. The river basin is divided between Pakistan, which has about 60 per cent of the catchment area, India with about 20 per cent, Afghanistan with 5 per cent and around 15 per cent in Tibet. The two major riparians, Pakistan and India, have extensively dammed the Indus River to provide for irrigation and hydro-electricity.

The Indus has five main tributaries. The Jhelum, the largest of these, originates in the Valley of Kashmir. The Chenab, a second tributary, flows through the Jammu region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir before entering the Indian state of Punjab. The remaining three tributaries (Ravi, Sutlej and Beas) either originate or flow through India’s state of Himachal before entering Indian Punjab.

Present Status

Currently, India, in clear violation of Indus Waters Treaty and international laws and norms, is in the process of building a number of dams on the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers such as the Kishenganga, Dal Huste, Sawalkot etc. The Indus Waters Treaty allows India to harness the hydropower potential of the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers, as long as it does not reduce or delay the supply to Pakistan. India therefore maintains that its projects are in compliance with the Treaty and sees no conflict with Pakistan on these issues. This is posing a serious threat to the agriculture and hydel projects of Pakistan.

India has 33 projects, including controversial Kishanganga, at various stages of completion. Although no single dam along the rivers controlled by the treaty may affect Pakistan’s access to water, the cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season. The Indus, in Pakistan, is the only river system supporting the country, where more than 92 per cent of the land is arid or semi-arid. In India, it is one of two main river systems supporting the country’s northwest: Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

John Briscoe, a subcontinental water expert, former World Bank senior water expert, and currently a professor at Harvard University, recognised Pakistan’s unhappy position in the following words:

‘This is a very uneven playing field. The regional hegemon is the upper riparian and has all the cards in its hands.’

The Way Out

In order to ensure that India and Pakistan both benefit from the rivers, both countries should implement policies which favour their mutual use of the rivers. Pakistan should allow India to use rivers which complement its goals and vice versa, as long as national interests are not jeopardised.


Dialogue is the most effective way in which the dispute between India and Pakistan over water can be resolved amicably. Other measures such as aggression or violence will only lead to losses among both countries. It is imperative that the issue is sorted soon in order to prevent further conflict or bloodshed which may occur as a result of the conflict.

Development of a New Treaty

Since the 1960 Treaty has proved to be ineffective in solving the current dispute, both Pakistani and Indian leaders should hold dialogue and develop a new treaty to break the present stalemate. Various issues which have been brought under consideration are relatively complex and may have been unforeseeable when developing the initial treaty. It is, therefore, necessary to alter the treaty to reflect the current concerns while safeguarding the interests of both countries. Since these rivers under consideration flow in both countries, it is clear that India and Pakistan are dependent on one other and none can exist independently.

Water Conservation

Water conservation is a problem which both Pakistan and India face. However, Pakistan appears to have greater problems as far as water conservation is concerned. Water conservation is important since it will enable both countries reduce reliance on the rivers, which are scarce resources and instead take advantage of rainfall and sea water to mitigate the citizens’ needs.  Pakistan loses millions of cubic water to the sea due to lack of water conservation initiatives. Water conservation will enable Pakistan have more water for use in agriculture, and ensure that citizens have access to water. It will also reduce disputes which arise from the use of rivers by India and Pakistan.


The Pakistan-India water dispute has lasted for several decades. This dispute is attributed to the Indus Waters Treaty which set out how Pakistan and India would share water resources. One of the clauses was that India would not construct a dam in rivers which belonged to Pakistan without express permission from Pakistan. However, India flouted this rule by constructing a hydro-electric plant in Doda district along Chenab River without due consultation from Pakistan. Pakistan saw this as an economic and political threat since it depended on waters from this river for agricultural purposes.

However, this conflict has adversely affected both countries by limiting development through cooperation. This conflict may also degenerate into war, especially if a terrorist activity occurs as a result of the conflict or if leaders intentionally provoke each other in a bid to resolve the dispute. This may lead to a regional war and may cause many fatalities.

There are various ways in which the dispute may be resolved and one of the most effective ways is dialogue and mediation. Another means is the re-negotiation of the Treaty. Since it was concluded many decades ago, and it overlooked certain societal changes which occur over time, a new treaty which replaces the current one may be developed by Pakistan and India.

Finally, water conservation is an important policy which should be embraced by Pakistan and India to reduce expenses on water costs and prevent the depletion of the water resource. These measures should be embraced by all countries with resources, since they will prevent future problems or conflicts which are associated with possession of resources.

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