After six decades, a water treaty between India and Pakistan is in trouble

After six decades, a water treaty between India and Pakistan is in trouble

There are problems with a six-decade-old treaty that divides six rivers between bitter rivals India and Pakistan. Experts fear conflict if it resolves.


There is a water treaty that has survived three wars between neighbors India and Pakistan, but decades after it was signed, that treaty is in trouble. NPR’s Diaa Hadid reports from the Pakistani city of Lahore.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Abuzar Madhu sits by the Ravi River as it crosses Lahore. He reads a poem to his beloved.

ABUZAR MADHU: (no English spoken).

HADID: Madhu is an environmental activist and his beloved is the Ravi, a river that rises from the Himalayas in northern India and crosses into Pakistan. Ships that used to sail the Ravi, saints who lived on its banks, part of a South Asian tradition of river worship, a tradition that Madhu embraces.

MADHU: Ravi, our river, is a living being. She is a mother. She is also a god.

HADID: But the river that flows past Madhu is not the Ravi of history. It is now a narrow, dirty strip of water.

MADHU: The black water just flows.

HADID: Activists say it’s a treaty that kills the Ravi, the Indus Water Treaty. It shares six rivers that cross India and Pakistan. And India uses the Ravi for agriculture, so there is only a trickle going to Pakistan now. Pakistani environmental lawyer Rafay Alam says that to understand this treaty one must know South Asia’s brutal history.

RAFAY ALAM: The treaty was in some ways the unfinished business of partition.

HADID: Partition is shorthand here for the events 75 years ago when the British divided South Asia into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. It sparked brutal sectarian violence and millions fled across the new border – Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India.

ALAM: Partition started the conversation about how water should be shared.

HADID: He says the Indus River Treaty is unique.

ALAM: Compared to all the other water agreements in the world, because it shares water instead of dividing it.

HADID: Environmentalists say the treaty is a disaster because each side can use the rivers they’ve been allocated as they like, with dams and canals to siphon water so the rivers no longer flow naturally. But the treaty also prevented conflict over water, and it is being held despite constant tensions between Pakistan and India. Shekhar Gupta is the editor-in-chief of the Indian newspaper ThePrint. This is a recording of Gupta discussing the treaty on a news show.


SHEKHAR GUPTA: In fact, the treaty has been observed by both sides, even during the wars.

HADID: But over the past few years, mistrust has eroded the treaty. It began when India started building hydroelectric power plants on rivers assigned to Pakistan. The treaty allows India to do so as long as the country does not store the water. But Pakistan fears that India will use these arrangements to cut off the flow of river water into Pakistan, and India has played on this fear.


HADID: Like in 2016, when militants killed 18 Indian soldiers, India accused Pakistan of sending these terrorists. And newsreaders began breathlessly suggesting that India would tear up the water treaty.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: (non-English language spoken).

HADID: They quoted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as saying that blood and water cannot flow together. At the time, India was planning to build a hydroelectric plant on one river that would flow into Pakistan, and it was finishing construction of a separate hydroelectric plant on another.

I stand on the banks of that river as it flows into Pakistan. It is called Jhelum. It is urgent. It’s wild. It also looks very gentle. And Pakistan says that this river has less water in it than it is meant for because of the Indian hydroelectric plant.

So Pakistan appealed to the World Bank. It acts as a third party in the treaty. And it asked the bank to hold court to see if India’s hydropower plants are in violation of the treaty. This frustrated India because Pakistan has done this time and again. After some back and forth, the World Bank said, let’s try mediation. This is Gupta again, the editor-in-chief of ThePrint.


GUPTA: But once again, both countries kept fighting, fighting, fighting. And as they kept fighting, fighting, fighting, at one point, the World Bank said, okay.

HADID: The bank gave up – to please Pakistan it resumed the legal process – to please India it allowed an expert to look at the dam. The bank tells NPR that it allowed both processes at once because years of deadlock posed a risk to the treaty’s survival. But there are problems. First, India boycotted the court.




UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: India has informed Pakistan of its intention to amend the Indus Water Treaty.

HADID: On January 25, India informed Pakistan that it wanted to amend the treaty. Indian media suggested it was to get the two countries to negotiate directly without the World Bank. But Pakistan wants a third party. It is the weaker country. It is on the verge of standard. It is mired in political chaos. Meanwhile, India is the world’s fifth largest economy. Daniel Haines is an expert in South Asian water policy.

DANIEL HAINES: From a Pakistani point of view, it may appear that India is at this moment trying to use its growing power to exclude third parties from the dispute settlement process, which Pakistan has traditionally seen as a guard against the potentially greater power of its upstream neighbor.

HADID: India has given Pakistan 90 days to respond to its announcement, and it has, but neither Indian nor Pakistani officials offered more details. So it is not clear what happens next. The concern is…

HAINES: It can contribute to a general deterioration of the relationship, which can be dangerous.

HADID: Meanwhile, there’s a far more existential threat at play, and it’s one the treaty doesn’t even address. Shared between India and Pakistan, these six rivers are fed by glaciers in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush.

ALAM: And these glaciers are under serious threat from climate change.

HADID: That’s Rafay Alam, the environmental lawyer. Those glaciers are melting — about a third of them are expected to disappear at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming. But the UN’s latest climate change report says warming is expected to exceed 5 degrees by the end of the century.

ALAM: And that means there is no water in the rivers. Actually what will happen is first you will have lots of flooding and then there will be no water. It does not really threaten the treaty as much as it threatens the region.

HADID: A region where almost 2 billion people depend in one way or another on these rivers.


HADID: Back at Ravi, Madhu, the environmental activist, takes us to see a river sanctuary on the Indus. He tells me he wishes the Indus Water Treaty would dissolve.

MADHU: It is not a treaty. It is the death of the river and the river.

HADID: He wants a new treaty written by the rivers themselves. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore.

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