Struggling over Water Resources: The case of India and Pakistan

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Indus water treaty


Have you heard about conflicts over water? Have you ever wondered how hard it is to ensure water access in a conflicted area?  Well, what I can tell is that you have certainly heard how people are dying from thirst and hunger or how they getting sick because of lack of water.  What you might not know is that sometimes it is hard to ensure adequate access to water. What are the reasons? In fact, there are many, but this article will focus on one of the reasons: a conflict. We will take a specific example of India and Pakistan, explain the reasons for the water dispute and evaluate the current situation with water resources.

To begin with, do you know that it has been only seven years since the recognition of the right to water and sanitation? Before that there was a long debate whether this right exists at all. Neither the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights nor the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) address water. Not earlier than 2010, the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have finally adopted resolution which recognized access to clean water, sanitation as human right (GA/10967).

To ensure this right is not an easy job. First of all, water situation in some regions is aggravated by its geographic position. Increasing population, the impact of economic development, climate change only makes it harder. These factors results in scarcity of fresh water. Moreover, water has another quality that makes it even more significant – its irreplaceability. Secondly, some regions are additionally involved into conflicts which make access to water more difficult. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that many river basins and aquifer systems are being shared by different states.

When something is shared, it sometimes gives precedent to a dispute. In case of two countries, it definitely does. This is the case between India and Pakistan which share the Indus basin. Currently both countries are experiencing lack of water, whereas water demand is rising and water resources of the Indus River continue to deplete. Some say that the situation in Pakistan is even worse, where the flow of river is dropping at seven percent yearly (See Baqai 2005, at 77). Thus, the river basin is giving rise for a dispute. Given the history of long-rivalry, it may result into a war.

The water dispute between Indian and Pakistan dates back to the early 20th century, but at that time it was a provincial conflict over the river to be resolved by British India. In 1947 India and Pakistan were partitioned, and the natural borders of river Beas, Chenab, Jhelum and Sutlej have been neglected. Many dams stayed in India, while their waters irrigated a major part of Pakistan. The geography of partition left the source rivers in India, and Pakistan felt threatened by its control. Moreover, the situation with Kashmir presented additional difficulties. Apart from its strategic value, the Eastern waters of Kashmir are significant for Pakistan in terms of resource access (its irrigation system largely depends on it).

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Soon after the partition, a major crisis occurred when the Government of the Eastern Punjab (India) took its sovereign rights over the territorial waters and blocked Sutlej river, stopping water flow to Pakistan and causing agriculture of Pakistan severe damage. This precedent stayed in the collective memory of Pakistan, leaving fear that India could repeat its actions.  India yet claimed that it was caused by Pakistani actions in Kashmir. Even today Pakistan feels insecure by its neighbour’s power over the Indus river.

By 1951 the conflict became more dangerous as both states refused to discuss the matter.  That’s why, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (today’s World Bank) was approached to mediate the conflict. It was not until 1960 when the parties finally reached an agreement and signed the Indus Water Treaty (IWT).

To ensure the best solutions the Permanent Indus Commission represented by both sides was established. Until 2015 the meetings were held regularly once a year to resolve problems, but after that none of them happened because of the tensions in the relations of India and Pakistan.

Only in March 2017 the meeting took place with Pakistan welcoming the Indian delegation. The World Bank was asked again to intervene but it refused, leaving two countries for a face-to-face dialogue. Even though the meeting did take place, it was decided to suspend further talks.

The current water dispute between two states is shaped by the following factors. First of all, it is fast growing population rate which puts enormous pressure on resources. Secondly, there is inefficient and inadequate use of water resources as well as increased demand for water as a result of economic growth. Thirdly, water stress is becoming more severe and it is further aggravated by climate change. Apart from this, one can see a reason for a dispute in inability and reluctance of political leaders of India and Pakistan to resolve the issue. As it is heated by the public opinion from both sides, the issues continues to be on the agenda. Additionally, there are grievances caused by the IWT which influence the dynamics of the dispute.

However successful the Indus Water Treaty may be, it remains to keep low profile and failed to reach its full potential. Both parties did agree on a partition of the Rivers, yet they did not pay specific attention to the other challenging parts of the agreement such as optimization of the use of the Indus waters (Chari 2014, at 5).  Further, there is little information in regards to the groundwater use. It also does not address such issues as the division of shortages during dry years and technical specifications of hydropower projects of India, particularly impact of storages on the flows of the Chenab River to Pakistan [1].

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Such weaknesses of the Treaty are consequently becoming a source of tension. It gives space for different interpretation, and this is used by both countries to their advantage. The IWT lacks its dynamics towards water resource sharing and has to be adjusted accordingly. Though the Indus Water Treaty did prevent a possible escalation over the water resources, it did not foresee the future depletion of the Indus River caused by population growth, new developments in industry, and more importantly by climate change and global warming. Back into 1960 it was not well-studied or discussed as often as now, hence, it was not given required attention. That is why many call to rethink the agreement and include new pressing issues into the Treaty.

Moreover, there has been an intensive debate in India to revoke the Treaty. It was the Uri attack that laid ground for it. An Indian analyst of water disputes and geostrategic developments, Chellaney suggested India should draw a clear line between the right of Pakistan to water inflows and its responsibility not to harm its upper riparian neighbour [2]. In response, Pakistan warned that any attempts to review and/or exit the treaty would be deemed “an act of war” [3]. Regardless, the Government of India remained mostly silent. The parties are not willing to cooperate; therefore the ITW is weakened by it.

In September 2016, the Prime Minister of India, Narenda Modi, referring the ITW, said that “blood and water cannot flow together” [4].   It was also stated that only in “atmosphere free of terror” the meeting of Indus Water Commission was possible (Ibid.). India has repeatedly mentioned altering and/or exiting the ITW, although there is no exit close in the Treaty.

It should be noted that in case of a conflict the UN Watercourses Convention of 1997 gives special attention to the “requirements of vital human needs” (Article 10, part 2).  International Law Commission clarifies these needs and say that there should be “sufficient water to sustain human life, including both drinking water and water required for the production of food in order to prevent starvation” [5]. This refers to the right to water of individuals, and the fact that States should respect and protect these rights.

Political tensions between India and Pakistan have worsened and made it difficult to settle even water issues. In this sense, the Kashmir conflict is inseparable from a water conflict. Many cooperative decisions were impossible because of parties’ inability to make any progress on the Kashmir question.

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 There is also a high level of securitization of water issues. To securitize means to construct a certain threat (for example, by means of authority). These threats are being dramatized and usually presented as a high-priority for a nation. Political leaders of Pakistan securitize this issue to the extent that it is described as a threat to national security. That makes a dispute more dangerous because water issues are being constructed as threat to a country.

Pakistan has more than once declared that if Pakistan’s need for water is used by India to pressure them, the country will consider it as a direct threat against Pakistani people.  Environmental security is intertwined with the risks of violent conflict, mostly because stress in resources (e.g. water scarcity). It is also usually associated with the growing population rate and inequitable distribution of resources.

Sometimes the Kashmir dispute is also explained through headstreams of the Indus. Indian control over it likely pressures Pakistan especially during dry periods of the year. Indian Power projects in Kashmir (like Baglihar Dam) only make Pakistan to securitize water issue even more and treat it as security problem.

All in all, both countries are experiencing an enduring rivalry in regards to many aspects. This rivalry deteriorates the cooperation on water share issues. A high level of mistrust guards many countries’ decisions, that is why cooperative mechanisms usually fail. Moreover, the water issues are being regarded as a matter of national security that may escalate the situation. As water quality and quantity continues to be influenced by climate change, population rate continues to increase, demand for water continues to rise, and both countries continue to blame and accuse each other… it does not look like countries are ready to have a face-to-face dialogue over water resources any time soon. But let’s wait and see.


  1. P. Chadha, “Indus Water Treaty may not survive, warns UN report” India Water Review, 1 March 2017. Available from [].
  2. A. Parvaiz, “Indus Waters Treaty rides out latest crisis” Understanding Asia’s Water Crisis, 15 September 2016. Available from [].
  3. Dr. Jorgic, T. Wilkes, “Pakistan warns of ‘water war’ with India if decades-old treaty violated” Reuters, 27 September 2016. Available from [].
  4. Express Web Desk, “Blood and water cannot flow together: PM Modi at Indus Water Treaty meeting”, The Indian Express, 27 September 2016. Available from [].
  5. International Law Commission, “Draft Articles on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses and commentaries thereto and resolution on transboundary confined groundwater” (1994) Part II Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 89. Available from [].
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Alexandra Goman
Specialist in global security and nuclear disarmament. Excited about international relations, curious about cognitive, psycho- & neuro-linguistics. A complete traveller.