The Parched Tiger: Indus Waters Treaty – An Unjustified Resentment Or Time To Bridge A River Divide?

Two very interesting articles on the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty which – while not perfect – represents the best that was possible in the circumstances that prevailed then and likely cannot be changed until India-Pakistan relations improve.  The first, via The Hindu, suggests:

The Indus Water Treaty must move beyond its logic of compensation and water sharing between India and Pakistan to address the energy and ecological concerns of Jammu & Kashmir

Much of South Asia is now haunted by the spectre of hydro-electricity. At heart remains the sub-continent’s unsolved riddle of trying to ‘meaningfully share’ its many trans-boundary rivers. Existing river development models, as all governments have learnt, are indeed a zero sum game: in which a benefit extracted from one point of the river’s stem will inevitably involve a cost at another point in the flow. For all the careful wording that has gone into framing water treaties, sharing agreements or cooperation models, the overwhelming fact remains that every country in the region is energy starved, politically impatient and is compelled to tap rivers for hydropower.


In April of this year, the government of Jammu and Kashmir loudly restated an earlier claim for ‘compensation.’ This demand for financial reimbursement was made not only upon the government of India but in an equally emphatic tone on Pakistan as well. And the source of this twinned nature of J&K’s grief, as they dramatically point out, is the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). Signed in 1960 between India and Pakistan, the IWT, ironically enough for J&K, continues to be celebrated as a diplomatic-legal-technical success story in the region. The consensus over the IWT, in fact, has not only held and endured wars but arguably, as well, offers one of the most substantial set of protocols for addressing disputes and disagreements that may arise over water sharing. But clearly this curriculum vitae of the IWT has failed to impress the J&K government, which has even gone on to hire the services of a private consultancy firm — M/S Halcrow India Limited — and tasked it to assess losses that have ostensibly been incurred by the State in the past five decades on account of the IWT.

According to one such estimate, J&K suffers an annual loss of Rs.6,000 crore; a calculation based on the perceived benefits that are denied to the State from clauses in the IWT that prevent the former from storing water (for generating electricity) and from diverting flows for irrigational needs. Jammu and Kashmir is, in fact, energy-deficit and according to the latest Economic Survey (2012-13), only 23.22 per cent of the required power was generated within the State while the rest had to be imported. As of now, J&K purchases around 1,400 MW of power from the northern grid and spends Rs. 3,600 crore annually on meeting its growing demand which peaked at 2,600 MW. This, given the fact that ‘potentially’ it can generate 20,000 megawatts from the rivers and many cascading tributaries that run through its valleys and hills. In effect, J&K‘s hydro-electricity dilemmas have turned into a hard rock that the State government is now continually hurling against the IWT and battering the delicate water sharing agreement between India and Pakistan.

But if the IWT appears to be failing the people of J&K who, geographically speaking, inhabit the head-reaches of the Indus system, what does one make of the environmental mess that has come to afflict the Indus delta? Historically, the estimated total water available from the Indus catchments has been calculated at being approximately 150 Million Acre Feet (MAF) (181 billion m3), a large portion of which then hurtled as fresh water flows into the sprawling edges of mangroves and estuarine ecologies of the delta. Over the past 60 years or so, however, the quantity of sweet water flows has been reduced below Kotri (in Sindh Province) to a peak (in the three monsoon months) of about 34.8 MAF (43 billion m3), with barely 20 MAF reaching the mangroves. In effect, fresh water flows have been steadily slurped off in the flood plains, with diversions for agriculture and industry and reservoirs holding back volumes for power generation. Importantly as well, instead of the 400 million tonnes of nutrient rich fine grained soil that used to annually nourish the delta, there is now barely a 100 million or so tonnes of soil washing up along the coasts.


The long-term consequences of this water and soil squeeze on the delta are yet to be fully understood as an environmental phenomena. In fact in 2000-01, the flow downstream of Kotri (Sindh Province) was recorded as an unprecedented ‘nil’. Only a few recent studies (such as A. Amjad et al, ‘Degradation of Indus Delta Mangroves…’ International Journal of Geology, 2007) have taken note of the potentially disastrous implications from dying fisheries, coastal erosion, mangrove destruction and an increase in sea water ingress into the coastal regions.

What does one make of this simultaneous failing and success of the IWT in the head-reaches and tail ends respectively of the Indus system? And equally, as well, how will this perplexing developmental and environmental conundrum impact future India-Pakistan dialogue and the peace process in the region? This riddle, it could be persuasively argued, has been, paradoxically enough, constructed not only by the context of the IWT but, significantly as well, by the peculiarities of the ‘knowledge regime’ that has largely informed trans-boundary river management in the subcontinent.

The IWT was too simplistically (though perhaps appealing in its time) based on an engineering formula which ‘divided’ the Indus rivers (Western streams to Pakistan and Eastern branches to India), rather than treating the river system as an organic entity that was ecologically linked and environmentally viable only as a connected phenomena. Secondly, managing the IWT has been kept confined to the limited knowledge resources generated by a thin sliver of civil engineers, state managers and ideas borne out of diplomatic intrigue.

Thus, if the IWT is to be saved from a political cul de sac, as far as J&K’s energy crisis is concerned and from a potential environmental collapse in the delta, the treaty and its weighty technical arrangements have to be moved beyond the zero sum logics of dividing waters. Instead, a policy architecture needs to be designed that allows and enables economic and environmental ‘transactions’ within the Indus system. Put differently, rather than stoking a politics of compensation based on narrower or opportunistic readings of the IWT’s many clauses and annexures, the way ahead would be to craft a credible ecologically based cost benefit model that acknowledges the Indus rivers as an organic hydraulic system: made up of fluvial interconnections.

Thus, if the head waters need to be preserved to sustain ecological functions within the flood plains and the delta, a case could be made to pay-off sections in the head reaches either through the transfer of hydro-electricity or commensurate financial packages. Similarly, if the head reaches or catchments of the Indus system are recognised for the range of ecosystem services that they deliver lower down the system then the latter must be expected to be conserved as a viable environmental entity.


Put differently, the government of J&K could make an excellent case for being ‘rewarded’ for preserving its rivers for their potential eco-system services enjoyed by downstream users rather than having to claim compensation for presumed ‘lost’ development benefits. The model of development, hence for the catchment, would be recognised as involving different priorities than the flood plains and the delta.

By allowing such kinds of ecologically calculated cost-benefit transactions across the Indus system, India and Pakistan can turn volatile environmental limits into both economic opportunity and political possibility. The way forward is to harness new knowledge on river ecology, de-centre the civil engineering mindset and craft fresh decision-making collectives that draw upon cultures and traditions of river management in the region.

The second, courtesy of The Third Pole, offers an additional perspective:

This is not a comment on Rohan D’Souza’s very interesting article in The Hindu (September 13, 2013), but seeks to provide a somewhat different and supplementary perspective on both the Indus Waters Treaty and on the dissatisfaction with it in Jammu & Kashmir.

The most striking feature of the Indus Waters Treaty 1960 (IWT) was that it performed a drastic surgery on an integrated river system, dividing it into two segments, one for Pakistan and the other for India. There will be universal agreement that this was a bad way of dealing with a living, integral whole.

The second striking characteristic of IWT is that it is overwhelmingly an engineering document: it was a treaty between two sets of engineers. It is easy enough to criticise these features or characteristics, but in doing so we have to avoid the danger of anachronistic and ahistorical judgment.

Second best course

Yes, there is hardly any doubt that the living, integral, organic whole ought to have been dealt with as a unity and not cut up into two segments. As a matter of fact, David Lilienthal of Tennessee Valley Authority fame did advocate the joint management of the total system in an integrated manner, but such a course was not found practical for obvious reasons.

Given the bitterness of Partition, the horrendous bloodshed that followed, and the implacable mutual hostility in which the two new countries were locked, it would have been naïve to expect that they could jointly, constructively and harmoniously manage the Indus system as a whole. (Such a possibility might have been difficult to reconcile with the logic of Partition.) When the ideal course is not possible, we have to settle for the second best course, and that was what the treaty represented.

Once the land was partitioned in 1947, a partitioning of the waters was bound to follow, and it happened in 1960. Unfortunately, that history continues to plague us. It can hardly be said that a good, constructive, friendly relationship prevails between the two countries today, and that the IWT can now be replaced by a better and more holistic treaty.

Let me turn now to the other and more difficult point. All of us agree now that water is not a matter for engineers alone, and that it is a complex, multi-dimensional substance (avoiding the economist’s language of ‘resource’) that demands an inter-disciplinary study. We stress hydrology, ecology, sociology, anthropology, economics, law, history, tradition, custom, culture, and so on. All this is familiar talk now and is almost becoming conventional wisdom, but it was quite unknown in the 1950s when the Indus Waters Treaty was being formulated and negotiated.
From the advent of modern engineering with colonial rule up to the 1950s or even later, water was indeed regarded essentially a matter for engineers. Even the constitutional entries on water (Entry 17 in the State list and 56 in the Union List) show the strong influence of engineering thinking. Water use largely meant irrigation, irrigation meant canals, canals meant dams, barrages, weirs, gates, sluices and so on. It is therefore hardly surprising that when Partition forced the two new countries to negotiate a treaty on the Indus waters, the negotiation was largely entrusted to engineers on both sides; and it must be noted that the two opposing groups of engineers shared similar orientations, lexicons and concerns.

Besides, Pakistan was anxious not only to secure a share of the waters but also to protect itself against the twin dangers of denial of water and flooding. The IWT was thus not merely a water-sharing treaty but also a water-control treaty.

Certainly, the authors of the IWT wanted the waters used for development but ‘development’ then meant projects for irrigation and hydroelectric power. ‘Projects’ were taken to be wholly benign; Environmental Impact Assessments were unknown; the possible human and social impacts of projects were even less recognised. The idea of a ‘minimum’ or ‘ecological’ flow would have been incomprehensible.

Naturally, IWT is silent on these matters. As for climate change, that concern emerged several decades later. We must indeed go beyond IWT today and take these matters on board, but eventually IWT needs to be replaced by a very different, holistic, wise and harmonious treaty.

Unfortunately, that will have to wait for a time when the relations between the two countries have ceased to be pathological.

Let us consider now the strong resentment against the IWT in J&K. There is a widespread feeling that while negotiating the treaty with Pakistan, India failed to keep the interests of J&K in mind. At one stage, the J&K Assembly even passed a resolution demanding the scrapping of the treaty.

While one must take note of the negative feeling about the treaty in J&K, it would be unfair to say that the Indian negotiators ignored J&K’s interests. Water-sharing by itself is only a small part of the treaty. The bulk of the treaty — the large and dense annexures and appendices — is about Indian projects on the western rivers, both storage and run-of-the-river. All those projects will be in J&K. Therefore, the substantial part of the negotiation was about projects to be located in J&K. How then can anyone say that J&K’s interests were ignored?

True, while India proposes to build a number of hydroelectric projects on the Jhelum and the Chenab (and their tributaries) in J&K, it does not follow that J&K will necessarily benefit from those projects. J&K may well feel that the power generated in the State will be taken elsewhere for use. Other States also have similar feelings about projects in their terrain. This, however, is a matter between the J&K State and the Government of India; it has nothing to do with the Indus Treaty.

What puzzles me is the following. When J&K complains that the treaty prevents it from utilising the waters that pass through the State, it appears that it is thinking of the restrictive provisions that limit the storage that can be built and impose several stringent conditions even on run-of-the-river (RoR) projects. India has so far not built the 3.6 MAF of storage that it is allowed to build. As for RoR projects, despite all the stringent conditions, it has built or is building several projects, and is planning a total of 33 projects. Assuming that the treaty was less restrictive, or non-existent, India could perhaps have built many more projects in J&K, both storage and RoR. (I am not going into the question of whether they would have been built by Central or State agencies.) Is that what the State wants?

Impact on ecology

We are talking about pristine, mountainous, seismically active, and ecologically sensitive areas.

Does the State want 50 or 60 dams and reservoirs to be built in this area? What will such a massive intervention do to the ecology of the region? Elsewhere in the country, say in Assam, Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha, and so on, there are strong movements against hydroelectric projects.

A study has been undertaken of the cumulative impacts of a large number of projects on the Ganga. The recent catastrophic floods in Uttarakhand have been partly attributed to mismanaged, mis-operated projects. In a recent case, the Supreme court has expressed concern about the cumulative impact of many projects on the Alaknanda, the Bhagirathi and on the Ganga as a whole, and has directed the MoEF as well as the State of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project in Uttarakhand until further orders.

Is there no similar concern in J&K? Are the people of that State quite easy in their minds about as many as 33 projects being built on the Jhelum and Chenab in their State? Undoubtedly, the energy needs of the people of the State, wisely estimated, must be met. Are massive dams the only answer? Assuming that to be the mainstream view, there must be other voices; but one does not seem to hear them.

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 12th, 2013 at 4:43 pm and is filed under India, Indus, Pakistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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