Geopolitics of Water in India and Pakistan: Ongoing Tensions over the Indus River

  Focus - Allegati
  24 novembre 2022
  17 minuti, 9 secondi

Geopolitics of Water in India and Pakistan: Ongoing Tensions over the Indus River


Given the water crisis that India and Pakistan are currently facing, the Indus River represents a vital support to guarantee water, food, and economic security to their populations. However, since the Indus River is a transboundary hydric resource shared between two countries that are engaged in long-lasting political hostilities, the exploitation of its waters has often become a source of political tensions.

This analysis aims at exploring the hydro-politics of India and Pakistan in the Indus River Basin, firstly illustrating the history of the management of the Indus River – with a special focus on the Indus Water Treaty –, and secondly describing how the exploitation of its resources could become a source of conflict in the years to come.


At present times, water scarcity represents a primary risk for India and Pakistan. In 2018, the Indian government reported that the country “ suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat...” (Menon, 2018). Indeed, India’s water availability per capita has declined dramatically (from 5,177 m3 in 1951 to 1,170 m3 in 2010) and, if no improvements in water management are achieved, it is predicted to further drop by 40-50% by 2050 (Prabhu, 2012). Similarly, Pakistan is today one of the countries that faces the most acute water shortages in the world, relying on only 0,45% of all global hydric resources (Watto, et al., 2021). Alarmingly, in 2021, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources warned that, if no measures are adopted, by 2025 the country will only have access to very little clean water, or none at all (Nabi, et al., 2019).

Given the water challenges that India and Pakistan are currently facing, the Indus River represents a vital support to guarantee water, food and economic security to their populations. With an annual flow of over 210 km3 and a length of over 3100 km, the Indus River is one of largest hydric resources on earth. It originates in the Tibetan Himalaya, and it flows southwards through the territories of China, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, until it reaches its delta and discharges into the Arabian Sea (Sobkowiak, et al., 2020). In terms of human dependence, the Indus River Basin (IRB) is one of the most important basins in the world: its waters support the livelihood of around 268 million people, mainly from India and Pakistan (Hartmann & Andresky, 2013). Indeed, if Pakistan is exceptionally dependent on the Indus River water resources – that account for 80% of its total water supply. Similarly, India strongly depends on them for irrigation and hydropower generation in the northern part of the country (Nabeel & Cheema, 2021). However, recently, as a result of the impacts of climate change, the rapidly rising water demand, and poor-quality water management, the Indus River hydric resources are depleting at an alarmingly rapid rate, risking posing serious threats to the water and economic security of both countries.

Given the strong dependence of India and Pakistan on the Indus River, an efficient and fair management of its hydric resources is thus key to safeguard the water security of both populations. However, since the Indus River is a transboundary hydric resource shared between two countries that are engaged in long-lasting political hostilities, the exploitation of its waters has often become a source of political tensions.

The Management of the Indus River Basin: Historical Background

The roots of the Indo-Pakistani tensions for the exploitation of the IRB can be traced back to the partition of British India in 1947. As a matter of fact, by drafting the borders of the two new-born states, also the Indus River and its tributaries were geographically divided, granting India the full control over Indus headwaters, while making Pakistan the lower riparian state (Nabeel & Cheema, 2021). The geography of the partition gave rise to significant inter-states tensions for the management of the Indus because it located the sources of all major Indus tributaries within the Indian territory, so that their waters flew through India before reaching Pakistan. Considering Pakistan’s massive dependence on the Indus River and its water challenges, the subversion of Islamabad to the upper riparian status of New Delhi was indeed highly problematic because it allowed its unfriendly neighbor to have full control over the primary supply of fresh water flowing into its territory (Qureshi, 2017). Given the two countries’ long-lasting political tensions, the main risk represented by this partition was thus that it ultimately granted India the possibility to manipulate Indus flow, either voluntarily or involuntarily inflicting losses on Pakistan.

These concerns seemed well-founded since, shortly after the partition of British India, New Delhi began arbitrarily withholding water from the tributaries that flew through Pakistan, inflaming the post-colonial Indo- Pakistani crisis (Wirsing, 2008). In order to secure a fair exploitation of the Indus River, in 1948, Pakistan thus pushed for the signing of the Inter-Dominion Accord, which was meant to provide a temporary solution to the two country’s water needs (Mallick, 2020). However, tensions persisted, and for years the two countries were not able to find a suitable solution to their water dispute.

  1. The Indus Water Treaty (1960)

Only in 1960, the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was eventually signed under the auspices of the World Bank, formalizing the water rights and obligations that India and Pakistan had in relation to one another. By acknowledging the Indus River’s ability to provide water to both countries, the aim of the agreement was to impartially apportion its water resources so that its management could not be affected by the Indo-Pakistani political tensions (Qureshi, 2017).

Notably, the IWT attempted to regulate the exploitation of the IRB by allotting to Pakistan three western rivers (the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab), while granting to India the exclusive claim over three eastern rivers (the Ravi, the Sutlej and the Beas). At the same time, India was allowed a limited use of western rivers’ resources for domestic, non-consumptive uses and to produce electricity, yet without causing a sharp decline in the Indus water flow. By signing the IWT, India and Pakistan also pledged to exchange data regarding their respective hydrological projects (such as the construction of dams) and flood warnings or other potential inconveniences. This provision was crucial to guarantee greater transparency in the exploitation of the IRB and to promote mutual trust between the two unfriendly neighbors (Chakraborty & Nasir, 2002). Additionally, foreseeing the possibility of potential disagreements between India and Pakistan, the IWT envisaged the establishment of a structured mechanism of dispute settlement, based on a Permanent Indus Commission, a Neutral Expert and a Permanent Court of Arbitration (Salman & Uprety, 2002).

The IWT is considered to be one of the most successful examples of transboundary water sharing treaties, with the dispute resolution mechanism representing its greatest achievement. In fact, despite the persistent political tensions between the parties, the Indus Commissioners have always managed to maintain cooperative relations to the point that the treaty was not abrogated even during the Indo-Pakistan wars (Chakraborty & Nasir, 2002). Moreover, in the past decades, the IWT managed to solve a number of water disputes that have emerged primarily as a consequence of Indian hydric projects. For instance, in 1978, after Pakistan raised its concerns on India’s construction of the Salal Dam on the Chenab River, the Indus Commissioners were able to make the two parties reach a peaceful compromise. Similarly, after several rounds of negotiations, New Delhi’s Wullar Barrage Project for improving navigation was suspended in 1987 following Islamabad’s objection (Mallick, 2020).

However, while this agreement managed to survive the Indo-Pakistani wars and the enduring political hostilities, it was unable to provide a long-term solution for the two countries’ opposition over the exploitation of the Indus (Nabeel & Cheema, 2021). The World Bank itself pointed out that, in its view, the IWT did not settle the Indo-Pakistani dispute, but it was in place to promote further cooperative efforts. Indeed, the provisions of the agreement ultimately divided the Indus tributaries among the two countries instead of establishing effective patterns of water cooperation and sharing (Salman & Uprety). Furthermore, the IWT has been largely accused of being too static since it is increasingly proving to be unable to cope with emerging water challenges, such as climate change (Biswas, 2011). Additionally, both parties have long demonstrated to be unsatisfied with the IWT: if New Delhi often laments that the provisions have imposed on India a unilateral responsibility for compliance due to its upper riparian status, Pakistan depicts itself as the victim of the treaty. In particular, a critical source of controversy lies in the provision that allows India to limitedly resort to Western rivers for domestic, non-consumptive uses and to produce electricity. Indeed, the lack of specificity regarding the limits on Indian projects to withdraw water allows New Delhi to significantly alter the volume of Pakistani waters (Qureshi, 2017). Due to the ambiguity of this provision, a number of disputes continue to arise mainly because of India’s ambition to maximize its hold over Western rivers at the expenses of Pakistan.

The Indus as a Potential Source of Conflict

Given the shortcomings of the IWT, India and Pakistan’s water dispute remains largely unsettled and, if no further cooperative efforts are made, it is expected to escalate into a direct military confrontation in the future. As a matter of fact, given the extreme water challenges that India and Pakistan currently face, water security is considered to be a critical issue of national security for which both states seem prepared to take extreme measures: Pakistan has indeed declared that it would be ready to go to war against India to secure its water rights, while India has threatened to withdraw from the IWT and completely cut off Pakistani water supply (Nabeel & Cheema, 2021). To understand how the IRB could become a source of violence and, in an extreme scenario, to spark a direct military confrontation between the two unfriendly neighbors, a number of considerations must be made.

Firstly, it is important to recall that the Indus water dispute is significantly linked to the enduring Indo-Pakistani political divergences, especially concerning the issue of Kashmir. In fact, since the sources of Indus tributaries lie in the Kashmir territory, the control over this contested region is pivotal also to obtain an advantageous position in the exploitation of this vital hydric resource. Consequently, as the regional water demand continues to increase, the two powers’ may react by reinforcing their claims over Kashmir, whose contention has always been not only an issue of national pride, but also one of water security (Mallick, 2020).

More generally, beyond the Kashmir issue, the Indo-Pakistani relationship is marked by years of deep political mistrust, which have significantly affected the two powers’ approach towards their joint water management. Indeed, still at present times, both India and Pakistan show suspicion and skepticism about each other’s water policies, so that they often deliberately refrain from sharing key hydrological data and from engaging in cooperative efforts. Moreover, due to their unfriendly relations, the two countries have also repeatedly placed the blame on each other for their national water inefficiency, instead of facing the new challenges generated by the impacts of climate change and demographic growth (Nabeel & Cheema, 2021). These dynamics, together with the mutual political distrust and the unsettled dispute of Kashmir, are hindering India and Pakistan’s efforts to adopt a cooperative approach, and risk fueling a more aggressive competition for the control of Indus headwaters.

Secondly, the progressive decline of both India and Pakistan’s per capita water availability – caused by the sharp regional demographic growth, poor-quality water management and the impacts of climate change – is increasing the pressure on the IRB’s depleting water resources, as well as the two countries’ assertiveness for obtaining its undivided control (Qureshi, 2017). In fact, as the threat of water scarcity dramatically increases, both sides are becoming more aggressive in their claims over the Indus. Notably, Pakistan continues to lament that India is attempting to obtain a regional hydro-hegemony by withdrawing an amount of water that largely exceeds the limits imposed by the IWT (Sajjad, 2017). Given the gravity of the impacts of water scarcity – which posed a threat to the food, economic and energy insecurity of the population – it is reasonable to affirm that the dramatic depletion of Indus waters could eventually trigger widespread discontent. In turn, this could lead to episodes of violence. In this way, the Indo-Pakistani dispute over the Indus River shows how environmental degradation and water scarcity can result in both domestic and inter-states conflict.

Bearing in mind these considerations, it is important to stress that in the past decades, despite the dispute settlement mechanism envisaged by the IWT, the Indo-Pakistani tensions over the Indus River have already largely escalated. Notably, most disputes have emerged as a result of India’s water management projects aiming at maximizing its hold over the western rivers at the expense of Pakistan. For instance, in 2018, India inaugurated the highly controversial Kishaganga Hydro-Power Project, despite Pakistan’s multiple objections and requests to refer the issue to the World Bank (Mallick, 2020). On the other hand, direct violence broke out in 2012 when, after the unsuccessful attempt to block India’s J&K hydro-power projects through international arbitration, a group of Pakistani militants sabotaged and attacked Indian flood protection’s works and other water infrastructures located in Kashmir (Ul, 2021). Furthermore, since the 1984 Indo-Pakistani conflict over the disputed Siachen Glacier in the Kashmir region, the two countries’ troops have engaged in multiple clashes and have maintained a heavy military presence in the area (North, 2014).

Beyond inter-states tensions, the progressive depletion of the Indian Subcontinent’s water resources has also triggered several episodes of violence within the borders of India and Pakistan. In fact, in both countries, acute water shortages have often sparked the emergence of violent riots and direct fights among locals. Notably, in India and Pakistan altogether, over 40 local clashes have erupted due to water distribution and allocation since 2020 alone, leading to numerous deaths or injuries (Pacific Institute, 2022). To add further complexity to the situation, terrorist groups operating in both countries have repeatedly organized violent attacks to obtain the control of key water infrastructures and basins, hindering the population’s access to hydric resources (Mallick, 2020). These episodes of violence are highly problematic because, apart from hindering the internal stability of the two countries, they also fuel regional insecurity. Indeed, since both New Delhi and Islamabad continue to blame each other for their water challenges, the risk is the growing mistrust existing between the two governments together with the increasing discontent of the public opinion could push India and Pakistan to turn against one another, even resorting to extreme measures.


The present essay has illustrated that the Indo-Pakistani water dispute remains largely unsettled, and risks affecting the already fragile relationship between the two countries, as well as to have dramatic repercussions on two populations that are highly water stressed. Given the gravity of their water challenges, India and Pakistan have begun to worry about the securitization of their hydric resources. However, instead of facing the underlying causes of the region’s water scarcity, both New Delhi and Islamabad are blaming each other for their water issues, fueling mutual resentment among the two populations and political distrust between the two governments (Qureshi, 2017).

As many scholars have emphasized, considering both countries’ current levels of water insecurity and the risks associated with it, it is instead imperative for India and Pakistan to engage in more cooperative efforts to solve the dispute. The first step should be a revision of the IWT. Indeed, despite its shortcomings, the treaty represents one of the most outstanding examples of cooperation between two rival countries, and thus should be used as a reference point. However, there is a necessity to modernize and adapt the IWT to the emerging water challenges and the changing environmental and demographic realities (Biswas, 2011). In particular, the revision of the treaty should try to go beyond a simplistic division of the Indus’ tributaries between the parties and should seek to promote a higher degree of cooperation and a fair exploitation of the basin. A revision of the two governments’ cooperative efforts is of paramount importance since the continuous skepticism and distrust existing between the two governments, and the subsequent reluctance to collaborate, is progressively leading to a devastation of the region’s vital water resources, as well as to a further deterioration of their bilateral relations. By contrast, a shared vision of water management – based on collaboration, mutual support and fair exploitation of hydric resources – is key to turn the effort to solve the Indus River dispute into a pattern towards both internal and regional development, security and peace.


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