Hydro-politics, the Indus water treaty and climate change


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DISCUSSIONS on the Indus rivers have become overwhelmingly strategic. Flows are matters of political contest, vested interests and, above all else, national security. Ironically enough, such strident noises over the division of waters have mostly avoided meaningful attempts to recall the region/watershed’s often-times troubled histories. It is as if the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960 could be almost nonchalantly deployed to snip vast flowing courses into neat divisible segments and with equal ease ‘rationally’ allocate immense volumes between nations. That is, a mere blunt knife approach can comprehensively sever and move about a complex hydrology without so much as an afterthought about disturbing delicately poised fluvial ecologies or the implications of coarsely stirring whole river-based communities.

The IWT with this structured ‘forgetting’ of the Indus basin’s many pasts and varied environments, is not unexpectedly, often seen by experts to be a ‘successful’ legal-technical arrangement that has suffered from frequent and exceptional political ‘misperceptions’.1 It can, however, be more convincingly argued the other way. The IWT was an unsteady political project to begin with and is now fatally failing as a legal-technical arrangement. But reversing the analytical vantage requires a sharp perceptual shift as well. A type of taproot understanding of the IWT is urgently called for, by which new facts, so to speak, must be dug up, sunned and differently seasoned in order to have one go beyond the limited simplifications of hydraulic data, official statistics, engineering opinion and statist imperative.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Mughal empire held, in a single firm embrace, vast territories of what today comprises India and Pakistan. For the Mughal ruling elites, applying a regular squeeze over agricultural surpluses was the preferred route to wealth and privilege. Typically enough, given this essentially land based notion of power, the empire’s numerous and intricate network of rivers were, at best, used either for navigation or as avenues to conduct easy trade. These inestimable flows, in other words, became natural outliers to the imperial governments’ otherwise more onerous quest to extract revenues from soil.

It would be unfair, however, to entirely dismiss all Mughal efforts at harnessing water. Several innovative structures, for example, helped deftly steer river currents into gardens, fountains, hunting grounds and even giant reservoirs. On balance, nevertheless, comprehensive fluvial management was rarely ventured upon. It was only in the middle of the 19th century, following the steady consolidation of British colonial rule in the subcontinent, that those big immodest engineering interventions for total hydraulic control were carried out. In particular, the vast semi-arid flood plains – sandwiched between the Indus and Gangetic river systems – became amongst the first sites the world over for implementing large-scale modern irrigation schemes.


For the sprawling Indus basin, coursed through by the fluvial fingers of the Indus, Ravi, Chenab, Beas, Sutlej and Jehlum, colonial hydraulic interventions were, in fact, both technically and politically unprecedented.2 For the first time in the region, permanent structures in the form of barrages and weirs were thrown across river-beds. These durable headworks were equipped with a series of shutters to regulate flows by impounding water during lean seasons, to be then diverted in calibrated quantities across miles of canals. On the reverse, in times when the rivers were swollen or torrential, the shutters would be flipped open to hurriedly jettison discharge. In effect, by alternately impounding or quickening the discharge of flows, the river’s variable or moody regime, it was held, could be transformed from a seasonal to a perennial irrigation possibility.3


Beginning with the Upper Bari Doab Canal (1859) and the Sirhind system (1882), the drive climaxed with the ‘most ambitious’ irrigation project of the colonial period – the Triple Canal Project (1916). These perennial canal schemes, however, were assembled not merely as channels commandeering river flows but in the words of David Gilmartin, were crucially linked to ‘political imperatives of state building.’4 The colonial dispensation, in effect, vigorously pursued perennial irrigation and agricultural settlement as means essential for stabilizing its otherwise unsteady authority in the region. At heart, canal building was the pressing attempt to yoke the then just disbanded Sikh soldiery and a large number of non-cultivating ‘predatory’ herdsmen to ‘permanent interests in landed property.’

The impacts of perennial irrigation, however, can also be historicized differently. Indu Agnihotri in a seminal essay on the canal colonies in the British Punjab, argued that irrigation did not, as is widely held, simply bring water and increase agricultural productivity into hitherto desolate ‘wastes’. Rather, the colonial canal colonies, of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, overwhelmed and over-ran a pre-existing vibrant pastoral economy and people who, besides herding, also seasonally cultivated crops through inundation canals. This process of marginalization, if not substantial elimination, of the pastoral communities and their unique ways of living with the ecologies of the doabs continues to find only rare mention.5


The point here is that the introduction of modern irrigation in the semi-arid flood plains of the Indus system was enabled following intense struggles over the creation of landed property, the elimination of pastoral livelihoods and accompanied by relentless wide-ranging environmental transformations. Raising agricultural productivity through perennial irrigation, hence involved, by design or otherwise, a deafening silence about different pasts: the ignored but suffered consequences of waterlogging, soil salinization, the violence of landed property, the defeat of nomadic peoples, instabilities brought on by mono-cultures and commercial agriculture, the attrition-ridden assembling of colonial social hierarchies and inevitably, the forced ‘training’ of once volatile free falling rivers into contained disciplined irrigation channels.


Profoundly intertwined with the relentless march of modern irrigation in the doabs was the life-world of the colonial civil engineer. Though often less heralded, these energetic, restless, innovative and adventurous men of empire were made steadfast with technical training in modern river management and control. Through the lens of ‘imperial science’, colonial environments for these engineers were not merely to be ‘catalogued, studied and observed’ but actively pursued for large scale manipulation, all in the name of commerce, civilization and endless improvement. In the same stride, this resolute quest to control nature was intimately tied to the equally severe project of dominating colonized populations. For the British colonial enterprise, in other words, intensely extracting from nature and exploiting subject peoples seemed almost logically to go hand in hand.

Attempting the dramatic transformation of complex and immense river systems through engineering was, however, no simple task. In aiming to physically shuffle, transfer, move or redirect vast volumes, engineers resorted to reductionist and specialized mentalities. That is, colonial engineers planned and crafted modern river control initiatives primarily through ideologies for abstractions in the form of formulas, equations, model-making, and by repeatedly fine-tuning an overwhelmingly quantitative notion of hydrology. Irrigation engineering preferred, in terms of their self image and professional training, to be defined principally by the ‘mathematical sciences’.6

Such a notion of handling water, in effect, assumed an unequivocal trust in numbers, while simultaneously aiming to wilfully ignore and shut out local knowledge or place-specific ecological idiosyncrasies involved in harnessing flows. If anything, therefore, the ascendance of colonial hydrology meant the consolidation of the universal, expert-driven and specialized practices for river management alongside the steady marginalization of localized cultures and place-based knowledge for water management. The mighty Indus basin, in effect, was disciplined with the elegance of numbers and rational hydraulic model-building. The river systems, hence, that otherwise stood as messy miscible admixtures of flows, histories, cultures, localities and exceptional environments were conceptually recast as straight contained channels. A once heterogeneous collection of people and places, through imperial science, cement and quantitative hydrology could be turned into homogenous spaces.


Following the hydraulic rearrangements of the 19th century, the Indus basin witnessed, in the mid-20th century, a second equally dramatic rupture – the division of waters for nation-making. In effect, scuffles over hydraulic access and rights that characterized the colonial period were transformed into bitter disagreements over clarifying issues of ownership and control of the Indus rivers. As the Radcliffe Line etched a hard border between India and Pakistan on 17 August 1947, flows had to be reconfigured as national rivers. From previously watering an uninterrupted contiguous political bloc, the Indus and its tributaries, in step with this logic of partition, had to be hastily inserted within new geographical scales and imagined as part of decolonized national biographies.


Not unexpectedly, complications over the Indus erupted as intractable hydropolitics between India and Pakistan. For a start, flows had to be instantaneously sliced and diced at multiple conceptual levels, in order to acknowledge the region’s changed geopolitical realities. Stretches of the tributaries, hence, that fell within India were classified overnight as upper riparian waters while Pakistan, on the other hand, inherited downstream flows. Having been thus officially instituted as cross-border flows, the various arms of the Indus system could now only be managed through a raft of international rules and protocols. The first involved a band-aid approach, with the concluding of an immediate pact appealingly termed the Standstill Agreement, by which all existing flow arrangements were to be maintained till 31 March 1948.

Alarmingly enough, for Pakistan, the Government of India ‘suspended’ supplies the very next day when the agreement officially lapsed. Though flows were eventually restored after 18 long days, the shock of being denied water not only ‘seared’ the Pakistani sense of entitlement to the rivers but the entire incident brutally made known to both sides that water could easily translate into severe problems of politics and power.7 The subsequent Inter-Dominion Agreement, as a stopgap arrangement, actually ended up further amplifying the fact that sustaining a divided fluvial system, invariably, if not urgently, needed an enduring ‘final settlement’.


Following a period of staggered negotiations, the IWT was finally clinched in 1960, as a trilateral deal between Pakistan, India and the World Bank. As noted by Daanish Mustafa, the IWT process substantially mirrored the political landscape of its time. A context that was defined by extreme suspicion between the two countries, their respective location in larger geopolitical strategies for the region and relationships that were repeatedly marred by political competition.

Rehearsing elements or features of the IWT, however, would not be helpful here, as they have been competently done elsewhere. What, nevertheless, needs to be marked is the fact that the IWT was overwhelmingly a legal-technical document. A notion about flows which, on the one hand, were firmly anchored in colonial legacies for water management in the region while, on the other, water agreements were crafted as legal protocols for nation-making. That is, flows were appropriated not on the basis of their ecological properties, but rather subdivided in order to enforce hard national borders.

The Indus system, in essence, was inserted into the geopolitical calculations of a troubled region and made legible primarily as statistically tabulated hydraulic data. The physical constituency of the river regime was, thus, starkly framed simply as a network of water channels, with the aspired ‘normal’ defined as a seasonally determined ‘average volume’. Rivers as national resources, hence, became facts without stories and quantities without qualities. That is, flows were not understood as organically interconnected and interacting elements of wetland ecologies, aquifers, lakes, marshes and the combined actions of innumerable tributary streams. Rather, as mere volumes contained in channels, rivers could be abstracted, diverted or interfered with to satisfy national priorities.


The belief that rivers are merely moving masses of water crying out to be regulated and dammed has been dramatically challenged since the 1980s by a fresh spirited theoretical turn amongst river ecologists. These ecologists have been convincingly able to demonstrate that fluvial regimes are complex geomorphologic, chemical and biological processes in motion.

By recasting, in fundamental ways, the manner in which fluvial processes are understood, river ecologists are now suggesting that a fresh paradigm is required for managing and interacting with such hydraulic endowments. Centrally, what is being argued is that flows are embedded in ecological contexts and therefore transferring them through technological fixes can and often do have several unintended environmental consequences. Simple steel and concrete approaches aimed at water abstraction, diversion and interference, in other words, must give way to an entirely new spectrum of knowledge, which will treat flows as being determined by non-linear ecological qualities. Put differently, treating rivers as mere mute volumes is flawed both as a concept and as a water management practice.

Handling and harnessing variability and stochastic flow regimes, consequently, have become critical to shaping sustainable approaches towards river management. The entire Indus basin, in effect, is a collection of relationships between streams, floodplains, the head reaches, aquifers and inevitably the chaotic delta. Small wonder then that the so-called ‘success’ of the IWT has resulted in the relative ecological devastation of the Indus delta.

Historically, for the Indus basin, a rough calculation suggests that before projects for siphoning flows began in the 19th century, up to 150 million acre-feet of fresh water probably fell into the delta, along with the deposition of close to 400 million tons of nutrient rich fertilizing silt. These immense uninterrupted volumes nourished and sustained a sprawling collection of mangroves, inlets, creeks, estuaries and other wetland ecologies.


By suggesting that flow variability is central to fluvial health, river ecologists have put forward a definitive challenge to the cement-steel based water-control ideologies of the contemporary civil engineer, whose entire conceptual tool kit, as pointed out earlier, was mostly drawn up in the colonial setting of the long 19th century in the subcontinent. In a similar vein, the hitherto untroubled pre-eminence of the expertise generated by giant centralized water bureaucracies such as the Central Water Commission (India) and the Indus Waters Commission (Ministry of Water and Power, Government of Pakistan) need to, in the light of these new ecological facts, be carefully qualified and reconsidered as well.

These institutions, with their training anchored in quantitative hydraulic data, have thus far been oriented primarily towards strategizing for ‘average flows’. In other words, these are technical-bureaucratic institutions that are committed to searching for and premised entirely upon harnessing hydraulic predictability. Significantly enough, these centralized water bureaucracies also play a crucial role in shaping national water policies and informing political processes over the building of hydraulic infrastructure in India and Pakistan, respectively. But with variability and stochasticity as the new norm for engaging with river systems, so to speak, what becomes of these legal-technical institutions and their infrastructural technologies? Put differently, if climate change is about the intensification of hydraulic unpredictability in the region, will the IWT as a legal-technical institution be able to respond to the new challenges.


Close to 1700 people or more perished and 1.8 million homes were damaged or destroyed in the floods that occurred in 2010 in Pakistan. In its wake, the floods also rummaged through 2.3 million hectares of standing crops and brought about a loss of US$ 5 billion to the agriculture sector and around US$ 2 billion each to the physical and social infrastructure. The flood-devastated realities of Pakistan, as Daanish Mustafa and David Wrathall argue in a recent essay, point to a far more striking conclusion: that the floods were aggravated and its impacts made even more ferocious because of vulnerability.8

Beginning with the dramatic hydraulic transformations in the colonial period, an independent Pakistan persevered in creating ‘a mismatch between the design assumptions of the infrastructure, such as embankments and barrages and the dynamic reality of the channels’ carrying capacity.’9 That is, Pakistan’s hydraulic and social designs were geared to ‘ignore the river system’s natural rhythms, in return for agricultural productivity and prosperity.’ Overcoming the potential dangers in such a trade-off, for them, therefore, would require a ‘better tactic’, which plainly stated was to ‘adapt to the Indus basin’s hydro-meteorological regime.’


Climate change and its perceived impacts, in effect, push for an active reconsideration of the IWT framework. Instead of an overt emphases on technical and technology based approaches, run with the narrow expertise of engineers and state negotiators, the new compact for river management/sustainability in the region would require different social constituencies and their experiences with the Indus waters. This would involve drawing upon and fostering cooperative dialogues between river-front communities on both sides of the border, such as fisherfolk, irrigation dependent farmers, river ecologists, water historians, sociologists and aquatic specialists (to name a few).10 These plural narratives can imbue the IWT with a much needed ecological sensitivity. The IWT or another compelling version has to be crafted to meaningfully grasp the Indus and its temperamental tributaries as qualities of flows rather than as blocs of disconnected volumes. The current reign of cement, steel and quantitative hydrology must, in other words, urgently give way to viable dialogues over fluvial relationships and ecological process.


* The author wishes to thank Observer Research Foundation and Lydia Powell in particular for enabling this essay. Also Sushil Aaron, Rudra Chaudhuri and Harish Damodaran for their inputs and ideas.


1. Ramaswamy Iyer, arguably, is the most sophisticated voice that debates the workings of the Indus Water Treaty as being principally dogged by problems of ‘political misperceptions’. His writings on the subject are too numerous to cite here. In all, however, Iyer provides some of the most valuable and informed insights on contemporary water challenges in South Asia.

2. Rohan D’Souza, ‘Water in British India: The Making of a "Colonial Hydrology’", History Compass 4(4), May 2006, pp. 621-8.

3. Herbert M. Wilson, Irrigation in India. Daya Publishing House, Delhi, (first published 1903), 1989, pp. 78-81; D.G. Harris, Irrigation in India, H. Milford, Oxford University Press, London, 1923, pp. 5-7. For an introduction to the modern hydraulic moment in British India see Elizabeth Whitcombe, Agrarian Conditions in Northern India: The United Provinces Under British Rule, 1860-1900, vol. 1. California University Press, Berkeley, 1972; Canal Irrigation in British India: Perspectives on Technological Change in a Peasant Economy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985; Imran Ali, The Punjab Under Imperialism, 1885-1947. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1987; Rohan D’Souza, Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; and David Hardiman, ‘Well Irrigation in Gujarat: Systems of Use, Hierarchies of Control’, Economic and Political Weekly 33(25), 1998, pp. 1533-44.

4. David Gilmartin,‘Scientific Empire and Imperial Science: Colonialism and Irrigation Technology in the Indus Basin’, The Journal of Asian Studies 53(4), 1994, p. 1132. Also see David Gilmartin, ‘Water and Waste: Nature, Productivity and Colonialism in the Indus Basin’, Economic and Political Weekly 38(48), 2003, pp. 5057-65.

5. Indu Agnihotri, ‘Ecology, Land Use and Colonization: The Canal Colonies of Punjab’ in Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan (eds.), India’s Environmental History: Colonialism, Modernity and the Nation. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2012, pp. 37-63.

6. Benjamin Weil, ‘The Rivers Comes: Colonial Flood Control and Knowledge Systems in the Indus Basin, 1840-1930s,’ Environment and History 12(1), 2006, pp. 3-29.

7. For an excellent discussion on the politics over the Indus rivers between India and Pakistan see Daanish Mustafa, ‘Critical Hydropolitics in the Indus basin’ in Terje Tvedt, Graham Chapman and Roar Hagen, Water, Geopolitics and the New World Order. A History of Water, Series II, Volume 3. I.B. Taurus, London, New York, 2011, pp. 374-94.

8. Daanish Mustafa, and David Wrathall, ‘Indus Basin Floods of 2010: Souring of a Faustian Bargain?’ Water Alternatives 4(1), 2011, 72-85.

9. Ibid., p. 7.

10. I draw upon this useful notion of a riverfront community from Sarandha Jain’s wonderfully compelling book on the Yamuna river titled In Search of Yamuna: Reflections on a River Lost, New Delhi, Vitasta Publishing, 2011. The riverfront community, she suggests, refers not only to people who live by and off the river but become a ‘bridge’ between land and water, river and society and as ‘mediators between nature and culture.’