Indus Water Treaty at 60

  • September 19 marks the 60th anniversary of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan, a treaty that is often cited as an example of the possibilities of peaceful coexistence that exist despite the troubled relationship.
  • The World Bank, which, as the third party, played a pivotal role in crafting the IWT.

       Equitable water-sharing

  • Back in time, partitioning the Indus rivers system was inevitable after the Partition of India in 1947.
  • The sharing formula devised after prolonged negotiations sliced the Indus system into two halves.
  • The three ‘western rivers’ (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) went to Pakistan and the three ‘eastern rivers’ (Sutlej, Ravi and Beas) were portioned to India.
  • Equitable it may have seemed, but the fact remained that India conceded 80.52 per cent of the aggregate water flows in the Indus system to Pakistan.
  • India conceded its upper riparian position on the western rivers for the complete rights on the eastern rivers.
  • To get the waters of the ‘eastern rivers’ for the proposed Rajasthan canal and the Bhakra Dam without which both Punjab and Rajasthan would be left dry, severely hampering India’s food production.
  • Pakistan leadership considers the sharing of the waters with India an unfinished business.
  • What is disputable today has nothing to do with water sharing, which is settled under the IWT, but whether the Indian projects on the western rivers, in particular Jhelum and Chenab, as Pakistan claims, conform to the technical stipulations.
  • Being a lower riparian state, Pakistan’s scepticism of India allows it to increasingly politicise the issue.
  • The treaty has remained “uninterrupted” is because India respects its signatory and values trans-boundary rivers as an important connector in the region in terms of both diplomacy and economic prosperity.
  • There have been several instances of terror attacks — Indian Parliament in 2001, Mumbai in 2008, and the incidents in Uri in 2016 and Pulwama in 2019 — which could have prompted India, within the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to withdraw from the IWT.
  • However, on each occasion, India chose not to do so.


  • With abrogation an option that India is hesitant to take, there is a growing debate to modify the existing IWT.
  • While the treaty may have served some purpose at the time it was signed, now with a new set of hydrological realities, advanced engineering methods in dam construction and de-siltation, there is an urgent need to look at it afresh.
  • Article XII of the IWT says that it “may from time to time be modified” but carefully notes “by a duly ratified treaty concluded for that purpose between the two governments”.
  • Pakistan will see no merit in any modification having already got a good deal in 1960. India’s best option, therefore, would be to optimise the provisions of the treaty.