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What is the Indus Water Treaty Dispute Between India and Pakistan?

indus water treaty agreement
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You must’ve recently come across news of stand-off or dispute over sharing of Indus waters between India and Pakistan. So what is this Indus Water Treaty (IWT) and how come it turned into a diplomatic issue between the two neighbours. This post explores these issues in detail.

Brief history of Indus Water Treaty (IWT)

Indus Water Treaty was signed by India and Pakistan in 1960 with the World Bank acting as the signatory. It was a water distribution agreement proposed by Eugene Black, the former President of World Bank. This treaty was signed by then Indian Prime Minister Jawarhar Lal Nehru and then Pakistani President Ayub Khan in Karachi on 19th September 1960. Since the sanction of this treaty, the two countries have not been involved in any water wars. The agreement institutes a mechanism for information exchange and cooperation between the two neighbouring countries pertaining to the use of the rivers. This was named the Permanent Indus Commission that has a commissioner on board from both the nations. Majority of the disputes and disagreements have been settled through the legal procedures, documented within the treaty’s framework. As per the treaty provisions, only 20% of the overall water carried by the river Indus could be used by India.

Rivers shared between India and Pakistan as per the Treaty

indus water treaty agreement

The Indus River system is composed of three western rivers, namely the Jhelum, Chenab and the Indus – and three eastern rivers namely the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej. As per Article 5.1, the treaty requires the sharing of waters of the rivers Chenab, Jhelum, Sutlej, Beas and Ravi which merge into the River Indus on its left bank in Pakistan. In accordance with the provisions of the agreement, Sutlej, Ravi and Beas are assigned for exclusive use by India prior to their entry in Pakistan. Nonetheless, a transition window of 10 years was allowed in which India was obligated to supply water to its neighbour from these rivers until Pakistan became capable of building a canal system for using waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, which were assigned for exclusive use by Pakistan.

Reasons for present dispute over the IWT

The current dispute in the Indus Water Treaty is over two issues. Firstly, whether India could draw down the water level in the dams below the dead storage level in any situation besides an emergency. Secondly, whether the diversion of water by India for its hydroelectric plants (Ratla and Kishenganga hydroelectric plants of 850 and 330 megawatts respectively) was a breach of the Treaty. The Ratla plant is being built on the Chenab river and the Kishenganga plant on the Kishenganga river, which Pakistan claims breaches the Treaty. The construction on Kishenganga project started in 2007, but was stopped in 2011 as Pakistan appealed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and argued that this project would have negative impacts on the Neelam Jhelum run-of-the river hydroelectric project it was planning on the same river. However, in 2013, the court pronounced an interim verdict that India would be allowed to divert a minimum quantity of water and the project work resumed. The recent stalemate came post the two days of talks in July 2016 between the Indus Water Treaty officials and commissioners of both the nations in New Delhi. Subsequent to the talks, Khawaja Mohammad Asif, the Pakistani Minister of Power claimed that his government would appeal in The Hague court.

India’s Stand on Indus Water Treaty

India has constantly maintained that the design of the Indian projects will not disrupt the supply to its neighbour of the 43 million acre feet every day, as required by the Treaty, and as India has been doing since 1960 even when the two nations were at war. The Kishenganga project has been designed in a way that it will divert water from the river, produce power, and then divert the water back to the Kishenganga river. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs claimed Pakistan’s action as a breach of the Treaty, which requires the two nations to resolve the disputes as far as possible via bilateral discussions. India contends that more discussions on the matter will result in a solution, and it would be superfluous to take the issue to an international arbitration court.

Pakistan’s Objections 

In Pakistan, certain political leaders, some segments of the Pakistani press and the militant groups have converted water distribution into an emotive issue. The debate that the Indus Water Treaty is a success has failed to convince them and they stress that Pakistan is an agrarian economy and the lower riparian and raise concerns that India could obstruct its prerogative water share by constructing run-of-the-river projects. Pakistan is adamant on the IWT and refuses to accept any alterations. Pakistan argued that India tricked it by buying time to finish the two projects and then claiming that the projects cannot be changed. Refusal from Pakistan came after India’s strong pitching for a bilateral redressal of disputes with it while executing the 56 year old agreement.

Present Status of the Indus Water Treaty

While India maintained its stance on appointment of an arbitrary expert over Pakistan’s opposition to the hydropower projects, Pakistan directly appealed for the creation of Court of Arbitration. India criticized the World Bank for its decisions siding Pakistan on the IWT dispute over the river projects. Strangely, the signatory is simultaneously proceeding with the two parallel mechanisms. The decision of the World Bank to go ahead with the claims of Pakistan had heightened the disparities into a global dispute.

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