Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Start Of A Thaw In Indus Water Tensions?

Via Future Directions International, an article on a Pakistani delegation’s visit to Indian dam sites:

In January, a Pakistani delegation undertook a tour of the Chenab Basin, to inspect Indian hydroelectric projects, including the Baglihar Dam. The delegation also inspected the Lower Kanai and Pakal Dal projects, both of which are currently under construction on the Chenab River. Pakistan has objected to the construction of the Lower Kanai and Pakal Dal dams, raising concerns that the projects violate the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) and may disrupt water flow into Pakistan. The delegation also inspected the controversial Baglihar Dam, confirming that it was operating according to its design. The visit is one of the terms of the IWT, which stipulates that inspections must be held every five years, by the commissioners of both countries.


The IWT has been hailed as one of the most successful transboundary water management treaties. The treaty separates the Indus and its five tributaries flowing between India and Pakistan into east and west. Water from the eastern rivers were designated for India’s unrestricted consumption and the western rivers for Pakistan. The IWT has facilitated peaceful sharing of water resources between the two countries since 1960, even during times of war. It sets out mechanisms for co-operation and exchange between the two countries, with a framework for irrigation and hydropower development, as well as clear dispute resolution procedures.

While the IWT has functioned well, more recent history has seen significant tensions rise over the status of the treaty, especially as water scarcity has become a greater concern in both India and Pakistan. In 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi caused concern by suggesting that “blood and water cannot flow together”, in the wake of a major clash on the disputed border in Kashmir. As tensions rose, the annual meeting of the Indus Water Commission was cancelled, fuelling further concerns.

Difficulties have also arisen due to Pakistan’s concerns over Indian dam-building. Pakistan contends that some Indian dams violate the terms of the IWT. India has pursued several hydroelectric projects on the rivers flowing into Pakistan, creating fears in Islamabad that India may use these projects to control its water supplies. These fears are often stoked during periods of tension or close to meetings between commissioners, with hawks in India periodically threatening to use the waters of the Indus as a weapon against Pakistan. Modi has also called for India to exploit its use of water under the treaty “to the maximum”, which has fuelled further tensions.

Despite strong words and an extended period of tension, the recent delegation visit suggests that a thaw may have started in India-Pakistan water relations. While a mandated inspection is not usually an exciting event, the visit was delayed by India last year. The delay caused concern in Islamabad, which, in turn, threatened to launch an “aggressive campaign” against India. The latest inspection represents a return to the usual operations of the IWT, despite the fears of many who suggested that “water wars” in South Asia were the inevitable result of India-Pakistan water tensions.

While there is little trust between the two neighbours, conflict over water is in the interests of neither. Both countries are badly water stressed, due more to poor management than any other factor and both have reason to want to renegotiate the IWT. The unilateral withdrawal of either party from the treaty would create a dangerous precedent; it would generate massive global condemnation and legal battles that would be deeply unattractive to either country. It is therefore likely that both countries will ultimately continue to abide by the terms of the IWT.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 7th, 2019 at 11:45 am and is filed under India, Indus, Pakistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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