Published On: Fri, Mar 3rd, 2023

Revisiting The Indus Water Treaty: A Path To Sustainability And Stability In The Face Of Climate Change

Revisiting the Indus Water Treaty: A path to sustainability and stability in the face of climate changeA girl washes dishes on the Indus river flowing towards Pakistan administered Kashmir in Drass, 142 km (88 miles) east of Srinagar, Kashmir, India. Drass, the second coldest place on earth straddles on the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. In a region with an altitude-influenced subarctic climate, average low temperatures are around -25 C (-10 F), and as low as -45 C (-10 F) at the height of winter, which lasts from mid-October to mid-May.
Image: Yawar Nazir/ Getty Images

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), signed in 1960 between India and Pakistan, is a bilateral agreement that governs the distribution and management of the Indus River system. The treaty has served as a cornerstone of stability in the region for over six decades, but climate change and changing water demands in India have raised questions about its relevance and efficacy in the current context. India has sent a notice to Pakistan about revisiting the IWT.

What is the Indus Water Treaty?

The IWT is a bilateral water-sharing agreement signed between India and Pakistan in 1960. It governs the use of the Indus River and its tributaries, which are crucial water sources for both countries.
Under the terms of the treaty, the Indus River and its tributaries are divided into three Eastern Rivers (the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej), which are allocated to India for unrestricted use, and three Western Rivers (the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab), which are allocated to Pakistan for unrestricted use, with some exceptions. The treaty also establishes a mechanism for resolving disputes and provides for cooperation between the two countries on developing hydroelectric power and implementing irrigation projects.

The IWT has been widely regarded as a successful example of water-sharing cooperation between two countries. It has been a cornerstone of stability in the region for over six decades. However, in recent years, there have been tensions between India and Pakistan over the treaty’s implementation. Experts have called for a reassessment of the agreement in light of changing water demands and the impacts of climate change.

Is climate change impacting Indus River System?

Yes, climate change is having an impact on the Indus Water system, which the IWT between India and Pakistan governs. Climate change is causing alterations in precipitation patterns, temperature, and the frequency and severity of droughts and floods, which in turn impacts the water availability and quality in the Indus River system.

For example, melting glaciers in the Himalayas, which are the primary source of water for the Indus River, are reducing the flow of water in the river. The reduced flow of water can lead to water scarcity and affect the ability of both India and Pakistan to meet their water demands.

In addition, changing precipitation patterns, including increasing frequency of droughts and floods, can affect the timing and availability of water in the Indus River system. This can have significant implications for agriculture and other sectors that rely on water from the river.

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To address the challenges posed by climate change to the Indus Water system, it will be necessary for India and Pakistan to work together to implement adaptive measures, such as improving water storage and management practices, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the river and its tributaries. This will require close cooperation and dialogue between the two countries. It may also involve revisiting the IWT to ensure that it remains relevant and effective in the face of changing environmental and new geopolitical realities, such as India’s rise as an economic power.

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, including changes in precipitation patterns, temperature, and the frequency and severity of droughts and floods, scientific reports have shown that the water resources of the Indus River system have been impacted. This resulted in increased water scarcity and floods in the Indus River basin.

Water as a strategic weapon

While the Indus Waters Treaty is often considered a means of promoting peace and cooperation between India and Pakistan, it has also been seen as a potential strategic weapon for India. Under the treaty, India has the right to use the waters of the eastern rivers for agricultural, industrial, and domestic purposes, subject to certain limitations and restrictions.

India could potentially use the treaty as a weapon by withholding the waters of the eastern rivers from Pakistan, which would significantly impact Pakistan’s agricultural sector and economy. However, this is considered an unlikely scenario, as the IWT has been a stable and reliable framework for resolving water disputes between the two countries for over six decades.

However, looking at Pakistan’s dwindling economy, by sending the notice to Pakistan, India has used IWT as a strategic weapon to send strong signals that can force Pakistan to come to a negotiation table.

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Time to revisit Indus Water Treaty

It is time to consider revisiting the IWT to ensure that it remains relevant and effective in the face of changing environmental and geopolitical realities. This could involve updating the treaty to reflect the latest scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change on water resources, addressing emerging water management challenges and new demands of the growing Indian economy that has implications for water use.

It is important to note that any changes to the treaty would require the agreement of both India and Pakistan and would likely involve complex negotiations.

Nevertheless, revisiting the IWT in the context of climate change could help to ensure that the agreement remains a source of stability and cooperation in the region rather than a source of conflict and tension.

Dr Anjal Prakash is the Research Director of the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business. He contributes to IPCC reports.

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[This article has been reproduced with permission from ISBInsight, the research publication of the Indian School of Business, India]

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