Understanding The Indus Water Treaty

Parenting Indian Juveniles Can Involve Repeating Bullshit Sentences.

That’s a mnemonic for you to remember the rivers in the Indus water system. Under the Indus Water Treaty, the water of the western rivers— Indus, Jhelum & Chenab— are allocated to Pakistan. That is P for Pakistan & I_J_C. On the other hand, India has unrestricted access to the three eastern rivers— Ravi, Beas & Satluj. That is I for India & R_B_S.

Those are the bare bones of what may someday lead to a “water war” between two nuclear-armed nations. And it’s important for all of us to understand why.

When Radcliffe divided erstwhile British India into two, the rivers of the Indus water system decided not to give a fuck. “The government officers, clerks with chairs, pens and inkpots were distributed” & so were people with mental illness including Manto’s fictional character Toba Tek Singh. But the Indus & its sidekicks had been flowing the way they did since eternity & they were not going to be perturbed by this newfangled concept called a nation-state.

The six rivers of the Indus basin variously originate in Tibet & Northern India as the hills lie to the northeast of the Indus basin. Pakistan lies downstream & hence by the sheer virtue of geography, India found itself with a dangerous level of control over most of these streams.

In May 1948, the Karachi Dawn, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, wrote:

As a blazing sun poured itself over the dry and parched lands of Montgomery and Lahore, anxious and overwrought people of the province asked, “When will the canal water come?”

In April, India had stopped water flows from the Ferozpur headworks to some canals in the Punjabi areas in Pakistan. About a million acres of land in Pakistan faced drought. India later restored the water flow but only after Pakistan paid compensation for the water. With this incident, Pakistan realized its folly. It hadn’t insisted on canal water distribution at the time of the Radcliffe award.

Two Opposing Conception of Territorial Sovereignty

Let’s say you have 20 people packed permanently in a large room. There are 20 water taps installed on an equal distance on the four walls. While everyone can access the water tap whenever they want, the main switch to all the water taps is located on a particular corner of the room. Sixteen of them are fans of John Green & four of them love Rushdie.

The sixteen people thought of the four as intellectual snobs while the Rushdie fans considered the remaining sixteen as lacking in literary taste. They fought a lot over what one should read & sometimes they got into fist fights too. One day, an outsider arrived to “solve” their problems. He built a wall divided the room. About one-fifth of the room was allocated to the four Rushdie fans. They got one-fifth of everything— books, pens, food supplies, etc. They had one water tap for each person too. But soon they realized the main switch to all the water taps was on the side of John Green fans.

Now, what do you think we should do to arrive at a fair arrangement?

The John Green fans could say that they have the right to do whatever they want with the things in their territory & that involves turning the switch on or off whenever they want. This view is called absolute territorial sovereignty or the Harmon Doctrine. According to it, Rushdians have no right to question if the Greenies switch off the water taps forever & leave them the Rushdians to die. In 1895, When the government of Mexico protested against the US diversion of water from the Rio Grande river, the US justified its action by Harmon Doctrine. This is a very uncivilized way of looking at things & It is no longer in use in the International law.

The Rushdians can say that water did not belong to the land but to the people. So, they were entitled to the same amount of water they had enjoyed historically. The party in control of the switches could not do whatever they wanted. There are some internationally accepted rules & the two parties must abide by it. This view is called Limited Territorial Sovereignty or the theory of territorial integrity.

Under the theory of territorial integrity, every lower riparian is entitled to the natural flow of streams entering its territory.


The right to exploit a river to a greater extent than in the past must be denied an upper riparian since it would affect the amount of water, or its quality, flowing downstream.

This is how Pakistan has viewed the Indus problem from its inception. This theory too isn’t applied anywhere in practice yet. These are the two extreme views. The Indus Water Treaty is based on a middle way— the theory of reasonable & equitable utilization.

It follows from (these principles) that the rights of the several units concerned in this dispute must be determined by applying neither the doctrine of sovereignty, nor the doctrine of riparian rights, but the rule of equitable apportionment, each unit being entitled to a fair share of the waters of the Indus and its tributaries.

After 1948, when India stopped the flow of water to Pakistan, the two countries with the World Bank as a broker tried to negotiate a more civilized arrangement. At the beginning of the negotiations, India just asked for the water of the river Beas for exclusive Indian use. But till the end, India got unrestricted access two three eastern rivers— Ravi, Beas & Satluj. This was commensurate with India’s needs. About 20% of the watershed of the Indus water system is in Indian territory & India got unrestricted access to about a similar percentage of water. In addition to that, India was also allowed to small storage on the western rivers for cultivation & to generate electricity. This was the Indus Water Treaty signed between the three parties— India, Pakistan & the World Bank— in 1960.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

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