India and Pakistan Are Playing a Dangerous Game in the Indus Basin
What’s behind the rivals’ latest spat over water rights along their shared rivers?
On January 25, India sent a notice to Pakistan demanding the modification of the Indus Waters Treaty. Pakistan has so far refused to engage. The treaty, which India, Pakistan and the World Bank originally signed in 1960, allocates rights over the waters of several rivers in the Indus Basin to India and Pakistan.
Analysts have often thought of the treaty as a high point in the two countries’ otherwise fraught bilateral relationship. But discontent in both countries has been growing — and this is not the first time that India and Pakistan have publicly clashed over the treaty.
The engineering questions at stake are highly technical, and so are the processes that the treaty lays out for addressing them. But the core of the problem is that India wants to build hydropower projects on the Rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. Under the treaty, Pakistan can make free use of their waters. But the treaty imposes limits on what India, located upstream, can do with them. Pakistan wants to ensure that India’s dam designs fit within its own interpretation of the treaty’s provisions.
Rising Tensions in the Indus Basin
The two sides have been making conflicting arguments about water use since the mid-2000s. India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken a tougher public line on water-sharing with Pakistan since assuming power in 2014. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even said in 2019 that India would stop “every drop” of water in the Rivers Ravi, Sutlej and Beas — which the Indus Waters Treaty assigns to Indian uses — from flowing into Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has invoked the treaty’s disagreement resolution provisions three times. The first time, Pakistan asked the World Bank to appoint a neutral expert to address concerns that a planned hydropower project on the Chenab River in India-administered Kashmir would give Indian engineers a greater degree of control over the river’s flow than the treaty allowed. The neutral expert approved India’s plans in 2007, presenting his ruling as being in line with current best practice in sediment management.
Pakistan then asked the World Bank to convene a court of arbitration to opine on India’s plans for a hydroelectric project on the Kishenganga-Neelum, a tributary of the Jhelum River. The court’s verdict in 2013 did not fully side with either country — a result that has left Indian officials frustrated as they await a definitive resolution.
Finally, the main trigger for India’s current disgruntlement is Pakistan’s objections to another Indian dam on the Chenab, the Ratle project. Construction is slated to begin soon. Pakistan first asked the World Bank to appoint another court of arbitration on these matters in 2016, while India wanted to refer to a neutral expert instead. Much to the annoyance of Indian officials, the World Bank initiated both processes simultaneously in 2017 and appointed key personnel in October 2022. Indian officials have now threatened to disregard any interim findings of the arbitration court amid their demand to modify the treaty.
India’s Demand Moves Treaty into Uncharted Territory
While India and Pakistan have clashed over the treaty before, India’s latest missive is different. India has made its demand to modify the treaty through the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), the bilateral body which implements the treaty and discusses problems. This suggests that the Indian government has intentions beyond rhetorical grandstanding, as neither side has previously used the formal mechanism of the PIC to call for changes to the treaty text itself.
It is not clear exactly what India wants, or expects, to achieve. Reportedly, India has specifically asked Pakistan to renegotiate the terms of dispute resolution. Indian government spokespeople have claimed that Pakistan’s “intransigence” has forced their move. But if India wants Pakistan to agree to new terms that favor India, when Pakistan is already fighting hard to prevent India from gaining advantages under the current terms, what realistic incentive is there for Pakistan to come to the negotiating table?
Of course, Indian leaders might be betting that their upstream advantage over Pakistan, coupled with a good dose of bellicosity, will scare Islamabad into submission. They might even be looking for an excuse to repudiate the treaty and press on with upstream project development, willing to accept whatever reputational cost might follow.
Either of these intentions could prove to be serious misjudgments. Pakistan’s leaders are under no illusions about India’s riparian advantage, and their hardline stance on the treaty has always been a product of fear. The international dispute over Indus waters began in 1948, when engineers in East Punjab shut off water supplies to an important Pakistani canal. Ever since, political narratives in Pakistan have cast the struggle for Indus waters as a matter of national survival. If India abrogates the treaty unilaterally, Pakistani leaders could view it as a deliberate attempt to destroy the country.
Meanwhile, the domestic costs of being seen to make concessions to India through renegotiation would be too high to bear for any Pakistani leadership. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s administration is already dealing with a huge economic crisis and has precious little political capital to expend on mollifying India.
So, the chances that Pakistan will agree to make substantive modifications to the treaty right now are slim. It is also unlikely that India will seek to unilaterally axe the treaty. Particularly now, as India hosts international leaders and journalists for a year of G20 meetings, the BJP will not want to risk sparking a potentially embarrassing conflict with its neighbor. It seems more likely that India is using the Permanent Indus Commission to express displeasure to Pakistan, and perhaps to the World Bank — trying to show that is losing patience both with Pakistan’s objections and what India sees as the Bank’s refusal to back India’s position.
A Volatile Geopolitical Bargaining Chip
More broadly, the demand could be useful to India as a bargaining chip as it seeks to maintain pressure on Pakistan over other matters.
In 2018, the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey-listed Pakistan after finding its action against terrorism financing was too weak. India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, claimed credit for keeping Pakistan on the list in 2021, but the FATF de-listed Pakistan last October. New Delhi might view its call for modification of the Indus Waters Treaty as a useful way to keep up pressure on Pakistan, which India views, in Jaishankar’s words, as an “epicentre of terrorism.”
Almost certainly, India’s political leadership stands to gain domestically from taking a tough line on Pakistan. The BJP is already in campaigning mode for the 2024 general election. In 2019, the party used Modi’s decision to authorize an airstrike in Pakistani territory after a terrorist attack in India-administered Kashmir to showcase his strong-man credentials before national elections that swept the BJP back to power.
If the 90-day deadline which India has set passes without a Pakistani response, India will have to take some kind of action or risk looking weak. The 2019 airstrike and Pakistan’s kinetic response seems to have lowered the bar for violent conflict. Rivers are not armies, and water security experts have shown that “water wars” are virtually unprecedented in the past and unlikely in the foreseeable future, including in South Asia. But a breakdown in hydro-diplomacy could feed into a wider deterioration in bilateral relations, perhaps putting the hard-won cease-fire in Kashmir at risk.
Even India’s international leadership ambitions, which mean it wants to be seen as a responsible power, might not constrain aggressive action on the rivers. Discarding the treaty could harm India’s international reputation, but the BJP has consistently prioritized domestic politics over international opinion. Leaders have pushed back hard against criticism of changes to the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and new laws that are widely seen as targeting Muslims.
Perhaps New Delhi would declare itself free to press ahead with upstream construction, undermining the treaty even if the text does not change. The World Bank has helped address differences in the past, but an Indian government source has reportedly said that New Delhi wants to prevent “third parties” from intervening in Indus Basin water management.
One hopes that New Delhi has not boxed itself into a dangerous corner.
Daniel Haines is an associate professor of environmental history at the University of Bristol and the author of “Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan.”