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  • Water Conflict between India and Pakistan: The Case of Indus River

    19.07.2017 | Comments | Environment | 65 Saule Akhmetkaliyeva

    The Indus River is one of the most important water bodies in Asia. The river starts at the Himalayas and inflows into the Arabian Sea through the territories of India and Pakistan. The Indus River along with its five tributaries, Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi and Sutlej Rivers, make up the Indus Basin. The World Bank-mediated Indus Water Treaty signed in 1960 is the document controlling water relations between the two countries. Under the treaty, India and Pakistan have divided rights over the water use in the basin (Nabeel, 2017). Pakistan is allotted to use the waters of the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers, while India has control over the waters of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej Rivers with limited access to the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers (Perry and Pokharel, 2017). 

    Previously, the treaty was an example of diplomatic success stories between rival countries. So far, the document has survived different conflicts in the region such as the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971 (Perry and Pokharel, 2017). However, tension around the basin is growing as the relationship between the two countries has worsened and the water demand for hydropower and agricultural needs is steadily increasing.

    The water tensions in the Kashmir region have arisen after armed military forces entered an Indian army base in Uri, borderline town, killing 18 soldiers in September 2016. The attack has been one of the deadliest ones since the start of the intrusions in 1989. The attack caused a ripple effect across the border on both sides (Perry and Pokharel, 2017). India and Pakistan’s relationship has worsened after Delhi accused Islamabad of being responsible for the attacks. Water dispute had arisen shortly after the assault, when the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, met with officials to review the long-standing treaty. India shared its intentions to exploit to its fullest the waters of the Pakistan-controlled waters.

    The main water conflict has arisen around India’s construction of dams along the rivers initially allotted to Pakistan under the terms of the treaty, for instance, construction of the Kishanganga dam along the Jhelum River on the territory of Pakistan (Nabeel, 2017). Moreover, India fast-tracked hydropower projects in disputed Kashmir region with a total cost of $15 billion, the largest one being the Sawalkote hydropower plant with a total capacity of 1,856 MW (Dasgupta and Miglani, 2017). Also, projects on the Chenab River that were held up for decades such as Kwar, Pakal Dul, Bursar, and Kirthai I and II won technical approval since the beginning of the year (Dasgupta and Miglani, 2017). It would take years to complete the projects, but their approval shows India’s readiness to show power in return to Pakistan’s deadly attack. 

    According to the treaty, India is allowed to build dams upstream on the western tributaries that were allotted to Pakistan (Nabeel, 2017). India argues that so far it has been using only 20% of waters allocated to the country under the terms of the treaty (Perry and Pokharel, 2017). According to the Indian officials, only 800 thousand acres out of 1.4 million acres of agricultural lands in India are irrigated. Moreover, currently, India generates 3,000 MW of hydropower in the western rivers. Meanwhile, it is estimated that the Indus River has a potential to generate 19,000 MW of hydro energy (Khadka, 2016). However, Pakistan is concerned that construction of major dams might have severe consequences for the downstream settlements. 75% of irrigation lands in Pakistan are watered via the Indus River Basin. Agriculture provides about 25% of Pakistan’s GDP (Perry and Pokharel, 2017). 

    The document does not provide concrete solutions for conflicts related to dam constructions on the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers since both countries have access to the waters. Therefore, the two rival countries have spent a lot of time and money on international arbitration. For instance, in 1987, Indian Tulbul navigation project was suspended as a result of Pakistan’s opposition to it (Khadka, 2016). Also, there was a dispute over the Kishanganga dam construction. In 2010, Pakistan filed a complaint with the Arbitration Court (Perry and Pokharel, 2017).  Even after the court ruled in favor of India, Pakistan expresses concern that India would have control over the waters flowing into the downstream country. The situation is exacerbated by the reluctance of the countries to share plans and data.

    The treaty does not have any regulations concerning the effects of climate change, and there is no other document considering this issue. Meanwhile, in the light of the global warming, the Himalayan glaciers which are the primary source of the Indus River are expected to melt at a faster pace leading to severe, frequent flooding. Moreover, there is a risk of change in monsoon patterns contributing to rainfall in the region. 90% of water in India is derived as a result of storms. Besides, the treaty does not have any regulations regarding the use of groundwater sources either. India and Pakistan share a common aquifer supplying 48% of water withdrawals in the area. Unfortunately, due to the high water demand more groundwater is being withdrawn than replenished. According to studies, Indus aquifer is the most overstressed one in the world (Nabeel, 2017). In addition, the document binds only two countries in the basin: India and Pakistan. There are no water regulations between India and an upstream China, and Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Kabul River which is one of the tributaries of the Indus River supplying 17% of water inflow (Nabeel, 2017).

    In conclusion, it can be said that India is using water to pressure Pakistan over the Kashmir region dispute. However, despite the current water tensions, there is a hope that the treaty might have a future while both countries are still in it.


    Dasgupta, N., & Miglani, S. (2017). Troubled waters? India fast-tracks hydro projects in disputed Kashmir. Reuters. Retrieved from

    Khadka, N.S. (2016). Are India and Pakistan set for water wars? BBC. Retrieved from

    Nabeel, F. (2017). How India and Pakistan are competing over the mighty Indus river. Independent. Retrieved from

    Perry, J., & Pokharel, S. (2017). Troubled waters: Can India and Pakistan bridge differences over river pact? CNN. Retrieved from

    Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute's editorial policy.

    Tags: India, Pakistan, Water Conflict


  • Junior Research Fellow

    Saule Akhmetkaliyeva

    Saule Akhmetkaliyeva is a research fellow in the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. She holds a BS in petroleum engineering from the Kazakh National Technical University named after K.I.