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Revisiting the 1960 IndusWaters Treaty

Hamid Sarfraz*

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Islamabad, Pakistan

This article analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in light of the UN Watercourses Convention. The IWT is, to a large extent, still relevant but must incorporate contemporary environmental standards and the social realities that are impacting water resources. Proposals for improving the IWT include the incorporation of provisions related to joint research initiatives, optimal use of available resources through mutually negotiated trade-offs, a joint climate change adaptation strategy, consideration of environmental flow needs, and joint water development and energy generation.


Pakistan and India share not only a 1610 km border, languages, food, dress code and culture, but also the waters from six watercourses: the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas Rivers, along with their numerous tributaries (Swain, 2004, p. 46). The growing populations of both countries and the resultant increased demand for water have made the sharing of transboundary water increasingly complex.

This paper takes a fresh look at the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) between the governments of India and Pakistan in view of the new environmental and social realities facing water resources. The analysis is conducted against the backdrop of recent developments in international water law with a view to analyzing the IWT’s strengths and weaknesses, and in turn to proposing a path for its future development and practical implementation.

The Indus River system is the source for the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world, with a command area of 20 million hectares and an annual irrigation capacity of over 12 million hectares (Swain, 2004, p. 46). Although the main source of the Indus River is located in China (Tibet), the headwaters of the basin lie in India and the bulk of the command area falls in Pakistan (Jaitly, 2009). Of the Indus Basin’s 1,138,800 km2 area, 52% is in Pakistan and 34% in India; the remaining 14% lies in China, Afghanistan and Nepal (UNEP, 2002).

The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 set Pakistan and India at odds regarding rights over the shared waters of the Indus, especially given that the headworks of two major canals irrigating Pakistani lands (Central Bari Doab and Dipalpur) were within India’s territorial borders. Through the “good offices” of the World Bank, Pakistan and India finally agreed on the IWT. It was signed on 19 September 1960, effective retroactively as of 1 April 1960, and ratified in January 1961 (Wolf & Newton, 2008).

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