The relationship between Pakistan and India has remained deeply strained since Partition, with numerous instances of political and armed conflict. In the aftermath of the recent attack on an Indian Army camp in the Uri sector of Indian-administered Kashmir that killed 18 soldiers, India accused Pakistan of being involved, and began to prepare numerous response options. One of these options that has made headlines in the past few days is India’s threat to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), which India and Pakistan negotiated in 1960.

Although both countries have had disputes regarding the IWT, it has survived the 1965, 1971, and 1999 conflicts. Thus, it is particularly significant that India is now considering abrogating this treaty over the Uri attack as a means of signaling its displeasure with Pakistan. Some important questions to consider are:

  1. Can India abrogate the IWT unilaterally?
  2. What would the international response be if India abrogates the treaty?
  3. What are the options available for Pakistan to preserve its water share?


As primarily agrarian countries, the management of water resources is a crucial issue for both India and Pakistan. After Partition, the Indus system of rivers crossed the borders of both countries, with India as the upper riparian and Pakistan as the lower riparian. The potential of India to restrict the flow of the Indus rivers would have been particularly acute for Pakistan, a water stressed country, which relies heavily on the Indus rivers to meet its agricultural, domestic, and industrial demands. In a rare diplomatic victory, both countries, with facilitation from the World Bank, signed the IWT in 1960, which divided the rivers of the Indus basin system between India and Pakistan. Under the treaty, Pakistan gained the rights to waters of the western rivers i.e. Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab while India gained the rights to waters of the eastern rivers i.e. Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. However, India retained the right to utilize the western rivers for limited agricultural use, storage (up to 3.6 million acre-feet), and hydroelectric projects.

Feasibility and Risk of Abrogating the IWT  

Article XII (4) of the IWT notes that abrogation would require written agreement by both India and Pakistan. There is no provision for either country to abrogate the treaty unilaterally. Thus, if India were to walk away from the treaty, Pakistan would have a strong case for condemning India for a breach of the treaty.  This is especially the case because the IWT already has three layers for conflict resolution including a commission of officials from both countries, the appointment of a neutral expert, and a forum of arbitrators. Thus, “abrogation” by India would really mean it choosing to ignore an established agreement with no legitimate violations by Pakistan.


What India can do is build dams on western rivers of the Indus to stop or reduce the flow of water to Pakistan. In fact, there have been serious concerns about this in the past and Pakistan has even taken India to the International Court of Arbitration, but its efforts have been unsuccessful. However, currently, it is impossible to consume all the water and block rivers by building dams. And to slow down the flow of water, India needs decades to build new dams with the capacity to store such a huge amount of water.

Additionally, if India were to take steps to threaten Pakistan’s supply of the Indus waters, it could invoke strong criticism from the international community for such an antagonistic action. This is especially considering India is projecting itself as responsible state for the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the United Nations Security Council.

Furthermore, India acting provocatively against Pakistan with regard to the IWT might damage its relationship with other states with which India has signed water treaties, such as Bangladesh and Nepal. Also, China could threaten parts of India’s water supply, in retaliation against Indian moves to threaten Pakistan, since parts of the Brahmaputra and Indus originate in Chinese territory. This is a real possibility considering China’s economic interest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the fact that India and China do not have any existing agreement over managing water supplies.

Pakistan’s Choices

The first and foremost step that Pakistan should take is to construct dams to conserve water resources because India could slow the flow of the western rivers in the future, especially with no end in sight to strained relations between Pakistan and India over the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan should invest in the infrastructure to deal with flooding. Pakistan should also work on building its image by employing new diplomatic tools and inviting representatives from across the globe to Pakistan to observe the ground realities. To invoke international support, Pakistan should work according to the clauses of treaty to develop and manage its side of the rivers, and devise a backup plan if India violates the treaty.


Image 1: Muhammad Imran Saeed, Flickr

Image 2: Stefan Krasowski, Flickr

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