Indus Water Treaty Can Not Yet Be Called a Success

March 17, 2009

The Indus Water Treaty is a water-sharing treaty between India and Pakistan, by which it was agreed that the use of water from the Indus River and its tributaries would be divided between the two countries. It is widely agreed by the World Bank and various experts that this Treaty is a success. Firstly, it has proved the effectiveness of involving a third party in negotiation. Secondly, it has shown that cooperation and coordination are possible in resolving transnational river conflicts. However, we argue that the Treaty has yet to provide sustainable solutions for peace maintenance at state level, and more importantly, meaningful protection to the citizens of both countries.

At state level, the Treaty is not entirely effective and remains difficult to implement due to the unwillingness of states to put aside their interests towards the rivers. According to the Security Research Review on the Indus Water Treaty (Subrahmanyam Sridhar, 2005), India has greater bargaining power over Pakistan as it is located in the upper stream of the River, making the treaty difficult to implement. Although India defends that the Treaty clearly states the minimum volume of water that must be transferred from India to Pakistan, in practice dividing the rivers is far more complicated than what is suggested in the Treaty. For instance, Pakistan recently accused India of building a dam which might reduce the flow of water to Pakistan to almost less than half of its original share. By simply regulating the volume of water transferred and the terms of use of the rivers, the Treaty has yet to provide solutions to this complicated issue.

At the same time, from a human security perspective, we doubt whether the Treaty is effective in protecting the citizens of the two countries. In fact, while the Indus River remains a valuable resource for both states, the Treaty has limited the use of the river to the locals. The case of Kashimir is especially revealing. According to the IPS News Agency, economic development in Kashimir was hindered because only 40% of the cultivatable land can be irrigated. Moreover, there is still 25% of Kashmiris living without electricity and 55% living without safe drinking. Quoted from S. Chakarapani, a freelance journalist in India, around 65% of primary schools in India still lack basic drinking water facilities.” While the World Bank insists that the Treaty is beneficial, it seems that it only brings benefits to the big players, and has no use in solving distribution conflicts at domestic level.

The Treaty cannot be said to be success unless it can effectively improve the living conditions of locals, who afterall should be the focus in a Human Security context. We suggest international inspection and close monitoring to ensure the river resources are used in their full potential. More work has to be done in ensuring the Treaty is implemented within a Human Security framework.

The treaty is just an initial stage in fostering cooperation between India and Pakistan, and more than just rivers should be laid on the discussion table. But more importantly, cooperation between these states and their own citizens has to be enhanced, and subsequent treaties should pay more attention to this basic principle of Human Security.

— By Eric Kong and Fiona Wu


10 Responses to “Indus Water Treaty Can Not Yet Be Called a Success”

  1. Brent Says:

    I agree, I think that is a little premature to call the treaty a success. It seems like it will work, and you have definitely given evidence that the parties are cooperating, but as you stated, water distribution has yet to be resolved on a domestic level, and Pakistan called India out for building a dam that will reduce the water flow to their country. This is a big step in the right direction quite frankly; the conflict over Kashmir showed clear ideological differences as well as a major religious difference. The clash of civilizations (Samuel P. Huntington) theory does lend much credence to this treaties continued success. Even if this treaty works now, when the water continues to disappear there is nothing stopping Pakistan from invading India and simply taking what they want…

    • Eric Kong Says:

      Thanks for your comment. You have further added a concern that conflicts would break out when water continues to disappear. According to the school of Freedom of Wants, human security would be several harmed when even basic necessities of living like water cannot be sustained.
      As we have mentioned, it is very difficult to create a treaty by explicitly stating the maximum of volume of water transferred between countries or the maximum area of agriculture land in a specific country. It is because this would limit the potential of the use of the river and the rights of people in both countries to enjoy the natural resources. At the same time, Indus Water Treaty cannot be a success if there is no rule regulating the methods of domestic water distribution within a country. This is the problem what Kashimir is encountering. As the local conflicts break out because of unfair resource distribution, countries have lower ability to resist external threats.
      Moreover, when water resource is an important human security issue, it also strongly links to the health issue. We would also like to argue that apart from the abundance of water resource, the quality of water is another important issue which the Indus Water Treaty should also regulate. For example, the Treaty should regulate the use of chemical fertilizers on the upper streams of Indus River to protect the health of Pakistan people, who live in lower streams of Indus River.
      This is our hope that two countries can enhance the cooperation and coordination of making full use of the resources brought by Indus River. The Indus Water Treaty should also help protecting the health of the people.

  2. carmenkmc Says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights, Eric and Fiona

    I agree that in order to sustain peace in water conflicts, not only states but also individuals need to have equal access to clean water. This inevitably involves conflicts of use of water among different sectors within the state; for example, competition among the industrial, domestic and agricultural sectors.

    However, in my view, we may demand too much out of an international treaty if we evaluate its success base on its effectiveness in solving not only inter-state but also intra-state conflicts. The international community of course has a meaningful role to play in solving the water conflicts among different state sectors; for instance, relevant international organizations like Global Alliance for Water Security may provide expertise in improving water use efficiency and the water management system of a state. These need not necessarily be provided for in the Indus Water Treaty itself.

    Therefore, I think the Indus Water Treaty is a success from the perspective of human security so far as it has demonstrated that states are willing to resolve water conflicts in a peaceful and cooperative manner to guarantee water security for all.

    Carmen Cheng

    • Eric Kong Says:

      Thanks very much for your reply and suggestions.

      In my opinion, when we try to analyze whether the Indus Water Treaty is successful or not, we focus on whether the Treaty would be sustainable in the future. It is true that the Treaty had been successfully preventing wars or conflicts between India and Pakistan because of disputes on water issues, though we cannot ignore the fact that the Treaty was signed in 1960s. The Treaty worked in 1960s when both countries were under-developed and the demand of water was not as high as now. However, as both countries, especially India enjoys rapid economic growth, it seems that the Treaty has set a barrier on making full use of the natural resources and hindering the development of some areas like Kashimir. The lack of water supplies and the lack of development of these areas would eventually turn into human security threats.

      What we want is to prevent this from happening. I agree with you that a single treaty could not help solving all single problems, but at least both countries should discuss the issue in dialogue and keep on updating the Treaty. International Organizations are important in acting as middleman between the two countries and encouraging negotiation between them. At the same time, as you have suggested, these NGOs or International Organizations can send expertise and provide technological supports to the river projects.

    • wufiona Says:


      I think you pin down the argument Eric and I want to make. The Indus Water Treaty can be claimed as successful in the traditional national security framework, but yet to achieve the goal promoted by Human Security concept in taking care of individuals.

      It will be a challenging job to divert the Treaty from national interest to individual interest, but I think we are all looking forward to that as future improvement. The third party like World Bank and various international organizations can definitely help play a role in making sure that this Treaty can provide more protection and benefits to the local citizens of both countries.


  3. Tiffany Cheung Says:

    Eric and Fiona,

    Thanks very much for providing more details of the working progress of Indus Water Treaty. Before reading this post, this treaty could be regarded as successful as it could at least encourage two conflicting countries, India and Pakistan to cooperate and share the river peacefully to certain extent. However, it seems that the success is still achieved within the traditional security paradigm based on the national interests, obtaining the reasonably equal share of water compaared with another nation ensure that they are not disadvantaged relatively. As you have quoted, both governments have not effectively and fairly distributed the water they strived for. They still privileged the big players such as mutlinational companies, cities for sake of the economic benefits enjoyed by the countries. They have sacrified the basic rights of powerless citizens like villagers, the poor etc. Thus, I do agree that the so-called accomplishment is still far from the goal promoted by Human Security concept.

    Meanwhile, I think that it is acceptable that countries fight for their own national benefits to the certain extent as long as they do consider the interests of each citizens rather than striving for national growth due to exploitation. Therefore, different opinions from both sides should not be the problem we concern most. Instead, the third party or the middlemen should continouly keep an eye on this issue to guarantee that both sides have communicated frequently to prevent any sudden movement such as building dams to spark the fierce conflicts as their relation is quite fragile even though the treaty is signed.

    Notwithstanding, I do admit Indus Water Treaty really show a good start. Looking forward to its improvement in the future.

    Tiffany Cheung

  4. Selena Wong Says:

    Dear Eric and Fiona,

    Thank you for your insightful contribution. I think the two of you have raised a very good point about the negligence of the citizens’ interest in the entire process of the Treaty. The situations you presented are really staggering: “25% of Kashmiris living without electricity and 55% living without safe drinking” and “around 65% of primary schools in India still lack basic drinking water facilities”. The interest of the “Big player” has once again triumphed over that of citizens from more vulnerable state.

    However, I do believe the treaty has to be praised as it set as a good example of the involvement of a third party in solving inter-states conflict, particularly a conflict between two parties with huge difference in terms of their respective power. As pinpointed by Wolf and his colleague, the continuous effort made by Eugene Black and the World Bank had a positive impact on the success of the Treaty. They played the role as an intermediary, inspected for commonalities with regard to the proposals given by each party and most importantly, presented their own proposals when negotiations resulted in a deadlock.

    In short, though the Treaty failed to safeguard the basic security of the people, it served as a good reference for future leaders in inviting a neutral party in resolving complicated inter-states conflicts like the one between India and Pakistan.

    Selena Wong Sai Yin

    Aaron T. Wolf et al, “Water Can be a Pathway to Peace, Not War,” Navigating Peace, No. 1, July 2006,, accessed March 17, 2009.

    • Carrie Chow Says:

      Dear Eric and Fiona,

      Thank you for your post which has inspired a lot of thoughts among us.

      I agree that much need to be done to achieve sustainable solutions and meaningful protection to citizens.

      Water treaties are in fact difficult to implement because of the unwillingness of the states to cooperate: in other words, simple self-interest means incentive to break the rules while at the same time accusing each other. This is not unique in India Pakistan – e.g. similar situations exist in Central Asia (the former Soviet Union states) as well.

      As regards suggestions to the above problems, international inspection and close monitoring are of course useful, and I think they might be rendered more effective by, for example, enhancing transparency and involving more NGO to inspect and evaluate the process.

      But in addition to that, the root of the lack of incentive to abide by the treaties might have been the bilateral nature of agreements that does not provide enough political weight. I think that a multifaceted regional approach that addresses various aspects of water use (e.g. energy, agriculture and demographic) and take into account of political, social and economic factors might be helpful.

      For example, the agreement can more realistically estimate and fairly distribute (e.g. by monetary exchange) the burden on upstream countries to maintain dams on the one hand, and balancing the needs and economic values of activities of various countries.

      Carrie Chow

      “Central Asia: Water and Conflict”, International Crisis Group Asia Report #34, 30 May 2002

    • wufiona Says:


      Thank you for bringing up the importance of involving the third party in the negotiation process of the Indus Water Treaty. You remind me on the dispute over the construction of dam in India.

      On top of the agreement on sharing the Indus River and its five tributaries, it was also stated that third party that is the World Bank provides mechanisms for dispute settlement. In 2005, Pakistan sought WB’s intervention to stop construction of the dam and the hydroelectricity power project. The experts appointed by World Bank in the end allowed the project while asking India to restrict the overall height of the dam. Though Pakistan was not very happy with the continuation of the dam, at least a platform have been provided for the two parties to discuss and neutral opinions from third party can be taken into account.

      It is just an example of how third party can help in resolving inter-states conflicts. It shows how important international organizations have become. And it should be something to be happy about as now inter-states conflicts can be better solved than going into war.


  5. Moin Ansari Says:

    The conculusions drawn from the research may not be valid in 2009. This basic essay does not get into the complexities and gross treaty violations by India.

    India was supposed to get three of the Eastern rivers and Paksistan was supposed to get two of the Western rivers.

    However India has now ocnstructed 60 dams on the Western rivers. She has named the “dams” other structures, but the bottom line is that India stops the waters at will and then floods Pakistan at will. This scenario has happened many times.

    The Indus Water treaty in fact is a testement to the fact that “3rd party intervention” is totally useless. Thw World Bank intervention has done nothing to reslove the concerns of Pakistan.

    As the saying goes, “The Pope and whose army” will implement the water treaty. The World Bank has no implementation mechanisms.

    The ordinary Pakistani suffers every day. We hvae written extensively on the IWT and why it has failed to prevent future water wars.

    DIA’S AQUA BOMBS: Draught & floods imposed on Pakistan: Indus Water Treaty violations- state terror

    Indian Aqua bomb: The coming water wars in Kashmir The Aqua Wars

    Water Wars: The impact of India stopping Pakistani water

    Editor Rupee News

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