Indus Water Treaty: Environmental standpoint

Due to the complex geo-political situation between virtually every country in the world, it’s not surprising that the environment is dragged into it.

One such hot-topic in the recent days has been the reemergence of the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan.

Features of the Treaty

This was a treaty signed in 1960, dividing control of the Indus river and its tributaries between the two countries. According to the treaty, the control of the three “eastern rivers”- the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi was given to India, while the three “western rivers”- the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum was given to Pakistan. The treaty is being overlooked by the World Bank.

Current scenario

Recently though, problems between the two countries has only been rising. After the terrorist attacks in Uri, Jammu & Kashmir, emotions in India are running red. The Union government is contemplating a fitting response to these attacks on different fronts; this water treaty being one of them. In the recent review of the treaty between the two countries, Indian PM Narendra Modi has been quoted say, “Blood and water can’t run at the same time.” The meeting also had Pakistani officials present.

While starving an already water-starved rival country may be a fantastic retaliation in times of war, I’m going to look at the implications of this decision from a purely environmental standpoint.

Environmental implications

The Indus river basin is a huge system. It contains 6 rivers of considerable drainage and area. This entire river system not only supplies water to two countries, it is home to some very sensitive ecosystems as well. Himalayas contain 0.77% of the total glaciers on Earth; it is effectively the third Pole. These glaciers have been retreating much faster than normal in the last 5 years; consequently the rivers have been receiving less discharge from these sources. Rainfall in these areas have been historically less; but in the recent years fluctuations in rainfall patterns have been rising. Very little rainfall is followed by flash floods in many parts of the region.

The ecological dynamics in the region are also changing. Ecologists have identified that communities have been shifting to higher altitudes by a certain amount every year. The huge hydroelectric projects are also adversely affecting floodplains and riparian ecosystems of the region.

Diverting channels of water as large as the Indus river basin could potentially destroy the entire western region of Asia by flooding the Indian side and causing desertification in the Pakistani side.

dams in the indus basin के लिए चित्र परिणाम
Dams and canals in Pakistan along the Indus River System.

In the context of human populations, the entire northwestern Himalayan region along with Afghanistan and Pakistan completely depend on this one river system for their agricultural economies. In these countries, water scarcity has been rising sharply. Crop failures are becoming more common. All of this is happening even though India has respected its part in the treaty and allowed Pakistan control of 80% of the western river waters.

In light of this, if India decides to nullify the Indus Water Treaty, the implications are disastrous. India is now contemplating on utilizing the full hydroelectric potential of the western rivers. This will involve erecting massive dams across the river channel in multiple places in the basin. It could effectively cut off water to Pakistan. Ecologically, the dams and reservoirs constructed will inundate huge parts of an already critical myriad of ecosystems. Diverting channels of water as large as the Indus river basin could potentially destroy the entire western region of Asia by flooding the Indian side and causing desertification in the Pakistani side.

Is this a price we are willing to pay?


  1. Navdanya—Climate Change in the Himalayas
  2. ICIMOD—The changing Himalayas – Impact of climate change on water resources and livelihoods in the Greater Himalayas
  3. Further political issues that could arise if the treaty is nullified. 
  4. Times of India—Blood and water can’t flow together: PM Modi chairs meeting on Indus Water Treaty

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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