Indus Water Treaty (IWT) – IR(International Relations )

Why IWT is in news?

India has been discussing since the Uri Attack of 2016 the need to use the river-waters flowing from its territory to Pakistan as a pressure tactic to incentivize Pakistan to change its policy of exporting terror to India. This debate has intensified after the Pulwama Attack of February 2019. As a first step India wants to completely utilize its share of the water.

But whatever India does it would have legal implications since the sharing of river-waters is governed by the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960 signed between Indian and Pakistan and brokered by the World Bank.

What are the features of the IWT?

Dimension Not River-sharing rather River Partitioning
Sector Eastern Rivers to India Western Rivers to Pakistan
Rivers Ravi, Sutlej and Beas Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab
Water Quantity 33 MAF 135 MAF
Water Usage India utilize nearly entire share (95%) of waters of Eastern rivers. However, about 2 MAF of water annually from Ravi is reported to be still flowing unutilized to Pakistan. India can use Western rivers for specified domestic, non consumptive and agricultural use. India has also been given the right to generate hydropower through run of the river (RoR) projects on the Western Rivers.
Commission A Permanent Indus Commission was set up as a bilateral commission to implement and manage the Treaty.
Dispute Resolution There are three levels to resolve dispute – bilateral negotiation or mediation via neutral third-party or arbitration.
Exit Option The treaty has no provision for either country unilaterally walking out of the pact.
Disputed Projects Indian Projects: Tulbul Navigation Project on Jhelum, Kishanganga and Ratle Dam on Jhelum. Pakistan Projects: Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) project passing through the Great Rann of Kutch

What are the implications of using river-waters as a pressure tool?

Ecological Economic Political
·         India would have to build dams to be effectively able to check or divert the waters. This would lead to inundation and adverse impact on the Himalayan biodiversity.

·         Dams would have to be built in the tectonically active Himalayas and hence the risks of dam-bursts and subsequent floods can wreak havoc.

·         At the same time flood-control dams can help India adapt to the fragile hydrology of Kashmir Himalayas.

·         Also the glaciers are melting to adapt to which would require international collaboration which could become difficult if water is weaponised.

·         In case of cloud-burst events India would have to suddenly release the water which could cause floods in Pakistan.

·         Building dams would require huge capital investments which may put unsustainable fiscal burden on India and may endanger its macroeconomic stability.

·         While dams would create huge irrigation potential which could be a boon to the famers of J&K.

·         Simply building pressure on Pak may lead to renegotiation of the treaty and may get more water than present 20%. More water more good news for the Indian agri-economy.

·         If India decides to limit water flows to Pakistan it would threaten the livelihood of millions of Pakistan farmers who depend on the waters of Indus.

·         It may strengthen the hostile axis of Indo-Pak conflict.

·         On the other hand Pakistan may yield to the pressure given the already vulnerable condition of Pak economy and actually curb its policy of state-sponsored terrorism.

·         If India violates the treaty it would not augur well for the global political image of India which has been of a responsible power and not a treaty-abrogating pariah. It has implications for India’s claims of regional leadership and a seat at the global high-table of UNSC.

·         Terrorists may view it as an act of water-terrorism by India and respond with more lethal terror attacks.

·         China may use it as a precedent and apply similar tactics in the context of Brahmaputra. This indeed can be a scenario of what Brahma Chellaney calls water-wars.


  • One view is that India should complete the projects on the river Ravi so as to fully utilize its share of the water. India may utilize the wisdom of brinkmanship but all within the framework of international law.
  • Other More Assertive View has been articulated by Brahma Chellaney (noted geo-strategist). He argues that to bring Pakistan to heel, India needs to fashion water as an instrument of leverage. Such leverage can serve as the most potent instrument in India’s arsenal against Pakistan — more powerful than the nuclear-weapons option, which essentially is for deterrence. Building leverage in the Indus Basin is a cheaper option for India to reform Pakistan’s behavior than fighting a war. Indeed, peaceful options — from mounting escalating riparian pressures to waging economic, cyber and diplomatic warfare — can effectively tame Pakistan.
  • Moderation: Chellaney too suggests not to formally withdraw from the IWT, but India must assert its upper-riparian rights and unilaterally remake the terms of the Indus engagement.