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What is the Indus Water Treaty?

The Indus Water Treaty is an international agreement to resolve the water-sharing dispute between India and Pakistan for the ideal utilization of waters from the Indus system of rivers. This treaty was signed in Karachi, Pakistan on September 19, 1960.

Water is the most essential resource to all aspects of a human’s viability and survival, from its inhabitant biology to its economy. “Water promises to be for the 21st century to what oil was to the 20th century”, the most precious commodity that determines the health and wealth of nations. The Indus Water Treaty is the treaty that was struck between the governments of India and Pakistan for the ideal utilization of waters from the Indus system of rivers. This treaty was signed via arbitration under the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now World Bank) in Karachi (Pakistan) on September 19, 1960, by Indian Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and the President of Pakistan Ayub Khan. The treaty covers the sharing rights and the water distribution of three Western Rivers (Jhelum, Indus, and Chenab with their tributaries) and three Eastern Rivers (Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi with their tributaries).

Historical background of the Indus Water Treaty

The dispute arose when the then newly formed nations i.e., India and Pakistan’s differences over how to manage and share the water of the Indus for irrigation and other purposes.
Pakistan felt its livelihood being massively threatened by the prospect of Indian command over the tributaries that fed water into the Pakistani portion of the basin. Where India unquestionably had its aspirations for the commercial establishment of the basin, Pakistan felt extremely threatened by a dispute over the main source of water for its cultivable land.
Hence, the treaty of Indus Water was created and signed under the arbitration of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now World Bank) in Karachi (Pakistan) on September 19, 1960.


The Indus River rises in the southwestern Tibet Autonomous Region of China and flows through the disputed Kashmir region and then into Pakistan to drain into the Arabian Sea. It is connected by numerous tributaries, especially those of the eastern Punjab Plain—the Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum, Beas, and Sutlej rivers. The Indus River system has been used for irrigation since time immemorial. Modern irrigation engineering work began around the 1850s. During the period of the British Raj in India, large canal systems were set up, and old canal systems and inundation channels were modernized and revived.

Post-Partition problems

However, in the year 1947, British India was partitioned, resulting in the creation of an independent India and West Pakistan (later called Pakistan). The water system was thus bifurcated, with the headworks in India and the canals running through Pakistan. After the expiration of the short-term Standstill Agreement of 1947, on April 1, 1948, India started withholding water from canals that flowed into Pakistan. The Inter-Dominion Accord of May 4, 1948, required India to supply water to the Pakistani parts of the basin in return for annual payments. This too was planned as a stop-gap measure, with further talks to take place in hopes of reaching a permanent solution. Negotiations soon came to a halt, however, with neither side willing to compromise.

David Lilienthal | Wikipedia

In 1951, David Lilienthal, former head of both the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority, visited the region to research articles that he was to write for Collier’s magazine. He proposed that India and Pakistan should start working towards an agreement to jointly administer the Indus River system and develop it, possibly with advice and financing from the World Bank. Eugene Black, who was then the president of the World Bank, agreed. At his suggestion, engineers from each country formulated a working group, with engineers from the World Bank offering advice. Political considerations, however, averted even these technical discussions from agreeing. In the year 1954, the World Bank submitted a suggestion for a solution to the impasse.

Indus Water Treaty

After six years of talks, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan signed the Indus Waters Treaty in September 1960.
The treaty gave the waters of the western rivers—the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab—to Pakistan and those of the eastern rivers—the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej—to India. It also provided for the building and funding of tube wells, link canals, barrages, and dams—especially the Mangla Dam on the Jhelum River and the Tarbela Dam on the Indus River. These helped provide water to Pakistan equivalent to the amount that it had previously received from the rivers now assigned to India’s exclusive use.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan signing Indus Water Treaty.| Slideshare

Much of the financing was contributed by the member countries of the World Bank. The treaty required the creation of a Permanent Indus Commission, with a commissioner from each country, to maintain a channel for communication and to try to resolve questions about the implementation of the treaty. Also, a mechanism for resolving disputes was provided. Innumerable conflicts were peacefully settled over the years through the Permanent Indus Commission. In a significant challenge to the treaty, in the year 2017, India completed the building of the Kishanganga dam in Kashmir and continued work on the Ratle hydroelectric power station on the Chenab River despite Pakistan’s objections and amid ongoing negotiations with the World Bank over whether the designs of those projects violated the terms of the treaty.

Provisions for Indus Water Treaty

  1. Article I of the treaty states the definition of the term used in the treaty. For example, The Indus, The Ravi, The Jhelum, The Beas, The Chenab or The Sutlej means the named river (including connecting lakes, if any) and all its tributaries.
  2. All the waters of the eastern rivers shall be obtainable for the unrestricted use of India, except for Non-Consumptive Use and Domestic Use and, Pakistan shall be under an obligation to let flow, and shall not permit any intrusion or interference with, the waters of the Ravi Main and the Sutlej Main in the reaches where these rivers flow in Pakistan and have not yet finally crossed into Pakistan.
  3. India is under obligation to let flow the waters of the western rivers except for the following uses:
    (a) Domestic use,
    (b) Generation of hydro-electric power as specified
    (c) Non-consumptive use,
    (d) Agricultural use as specified,
  4. India has been permitted to build storage of water on western rivers up to 3.6 MAF for various purposes. No storage has been developed so far.
  5. India has been sanctioned agricultural use of 7,01,000 acres over and above the irrigated cropped Aarea (ICA).
    Out of this additional ICA of 7,01,000 acres, only 2,70,000 can be developed (i.e. a total ICA of 9,12,477 acres) till storages are constructed and 0.5 MAF of water is released therefrom every year. ICA during 2011-12 was 7,84,955 acres.
  6. Under the Treaty, India and Pakistan have each produced a permanent post of Commissioner for Indus Waters. They together constitute the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), which is entrusted with the execution of the treaty. The PIC is required to hold tours and meetings and give reports on its work to the two nations every year. It has held 117 tours and 110 meetings so far.
  7. Both sides are required to exchange information relating to the flows of the river under their control, not later than three months from their observation, and to exchange specified information on agricultural use every year.
  8. India is under obligation to supply information about its storage and hydroelectric projects as specified.
  9. India communicates as a gesture of goodwill, to enable them to undertake advance flood relief measures and the flood data to Pakistan from July 1 to October 10 every year. The arrangement is reviewed every year.
  10. The commissioners may debate the questions arising under the Treaty related to Disputes, Settlement of Differences, and in the case of non-resolution, take further action for resolution through a neutral expert, Court of Arbitration, or negotiators.

Also Read: India to revive its international relationships

The treaty has pulled through after three wars between both countries and India knows the significance of this treaty. So, every time India talks about the trust and cooperation between the two sides and still it is trying to work on it. Therefore, it is one of the most successful water treaties that is still surviving but the current tension between both the countries shows the changing face of the treaty i.e. partitioning of the rivers rather than sharing of their waters.


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