Indus, the Source of Life


Why India’s refusal to honour the Indus Water Treaty is significant


Water is the source of life, therefore the recent threat emanating from India not to honour the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) is a threat to Pakistan’s source of life and must be taken seriously. The legal details about the treaty have been written about elsewhere. I will therefore try and focus on technical aspects.

Over 80% of the water that flows in the river comes from snowmelts as Pakistan is an arid country, with over 60 percent of the rainfall and almost all the snowmelt happening in the Kharif period (April-Sept) the Indus and its tributaries receives over 85% of the flow in that period, the flows dependent on the location of the glaciers where this snow melt occurs. Crops however need water throughout the year, thus storage of this water is crucial.

The total water available at the rim station of the Indus Basin that is allocated to Pakistan is on average just under 150 Million Acre Feet (MAF) of this 105 MAF is reserved for irrigation with the remaining allowed to flow into the sea. The actual flow varies based on rainfall so it can decrease to 135 MAF and in some instance increase to 170 MAF in years of exceptional floods. Of this only 30 MAF originates is from Watersheds in India itself while the remaining originates from China but flows through Indian Territory. Approx. 30 MAF is contributed by watersheds in Pakistan and other rivers including the Kabul and its tributaries.

The River Indus supplies almost 45% of the total flow with Jhelum and Chenab providing almost 17 % each. While Kabul River supplying 15% of the total flow. Surprisingly the Ravi and Sutlej although theoretically under Indian control also annually supply 8 MAF, although this release is during the monsoon when it cannot be utilised for irrigation.

The Indus Basin Treaty gives Pakistan unrestrictive use of the flow from the three western rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). Other than for i) drinking purposes (domestic use), ii) Non consumptive use, ii) existing irrigation as set out in Annexure C of the treaty and iv) Hydroelectric provided that water is returned back to the river.

As per “annexure C” of the Treaty India is only allowed withdrawal of waters from Ranbir canal and Partab canal, similarly it is only allowed to increase cropped area (from what was already practiced in 1960) by 150,000 acres on the Jhelum and 50,000 acres on the Chenab. There is no provision for any increase of cultivate area on the river Indus.

Therefore the disinformation that Indian media has been spreading that it is allowed to use up to 20% of the water on the Western river is not what is actually written in the treaty. The original treaty had allocated 20 % of the total flow including the eastern rivers of Ravi, Sutlej and Beas.

Currently there are seven projects that are/ were under dispute that are being built by India on the Jehlum or Chenab including Salal dam, Tulbul Navigation or Wullar Barrage. Balaghir Dam, Krishanganga hydropower project, Chitah, Dumthar project and Bursar. Where the matter was referred to the dispute resolution mechanism the awards have been partial, whereas in so much as while the principals of the Indus Basin treaty have been upheld in that a minimum flow into the river had to be maintained, the resolution in one instance included reference to the Vienna Convention of the Law on treaties and drew from the principal of technical norm and noble standards.

The dispute resolution mechanism is cumbersome and to some extend relies of good will, thus the principal dispute resolution forum is the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) which consists of two commissioners one appointed by India and one by Pakistan. If due political disputes these commissioners are not appointed or meetings not held, then not much movement will take place if indeed there is a dispute. Similarly if the dispute is referred to an external party and the results are not accepted by India or they drag their feet in its implementation, our options to escalate these are limited.

So in principal, Pakistan should try and factor in the risk that India will indeed try and stretch the limits of the treaty for instance by deliberately increasing the levels of turbine in hydel power plant to unnecessarily increase dead storage levels, by releasing ponded water when it is not needed and then filling in the dam in the Kharif season when there is an urgent need for irrigation in Pakistan etc.

All these point out to the fact that our government urgently needs to allow additional cushion in case there is disruption. Over ninety percent of the water in Pakistan is used for irrigation, and the government must immediately undertake four steps :-

  1. Increase in the storage capacity on the Indus, within the next 7-8 years and for this the only viable technical option is Kalabagh Dam
  2. Improve the efficiency of irrigation particularly reduce water distribution losses in areas where the ground water is brackish
  • Improve institutional capacity for water management through effective Farmer Organisations and Area Water Board and
  1. Cap planting of crops that need large quantities of water particularly sugar cane and rice. Unless immediate measures are taken we will be risking the source of life in Pakistan.





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