In times where non-traditional security threats are procuring the attention of policymakers, hydro-politics is gaining the center seat as a tool to address and take forth strategic national interests. This relatively new domain in security incorporates and analyses the effects of environmental stress on local, national, and global scales. It is an interdisciplinary concept that draws from disciplines such as geography, political science, international relations, etc.
Hydro-politics attempts to unveil the complex nexus of interactions among states that share river basins.
Hydro-politics has been described by various scholars differently. For some, hydro-politics pivots around states as the primary actors and systematically studies interstate conflict or cooperation over transboundary water resources. For others, it is the systematic investigation concerning the interaction between states, non-state actors, and a host of other participants, like individuals within or outside the state, on authoritative allocation and use of international and national waters.
Pakistan and India are increasingly becoming an interesting case of hydro-politics. Before independence, the Indus Basin supported the largest irrigation system in the world, flowing through the highlands of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and China.
The politicization of the Indus Basin dates back to the British Empire, which had no consolidated development policy on water management despite vehemently investing to expand irrigated agriculture. This resulted in interprovincial water conflict between upstream Punjab and downstream Sindh. This absence of water management morphed into interstate tensions between the newly independent nations in 1947. The trajectory of water interactions in this shared Indus Basin is determined by the power asymmetry between the two nations.
It has the power to shape the future of the conflict consequently. One can understand the transboundary water conflict more deeply by looking beyond natural features such as salination, water logging, and upstream/downstream position. India, being the upper riparian, uses water as a strategic tool, whereas Pakistan, being the lower riparian, has to build more power to comply with India on water-related problems.
The water issues over the sharing of the Indus Basin between India and Pakistan started soon after independence over issues of the location of land that lay in the locality of water headworks at Ferozepore and Suleimanke. India opposed Pakistan when it started constructing a canal to bypass Indian head-works in the Dipalpur River. India, on the other hand, used this for its leverage and threatened to close the water flow to the Dipalpur canal if the prisoners of war were not returned by Pakistan using water as a strategic tool. The initial conflict coincided with the Kashmir problem since most rivers originated from Indian-Occupied Kashmir.
The fifties were marked by water tensions between two countries due to construction works (reservoirs, canals, etc.) on both sides of the basin to gain a comparative advantage over the other, such as the Bhakra Canals opened by India in 1954 by diverting water from the Sutlej. On the Pakistani side, new irrigation works were constructed on Chenab, Indus, and Sutlej; however, since Pakistan was more dependent on the Indus basin due to its geographical position, Bhakra dams were seen as a major obstruction to Pakistan’s water supply. 
The construction of Mangla Dam in the 1960s invoked a territorial concern between the two nations since it included a part of Azad Kashmir in its plan.
Pakistan, being the lower riparian, was more prone to cutting off the water supply in the Indus Basin until the Indus Water Treaty was brokered by the World Bank in the 1960s after nine years of lengthy negotiations among the parties that doled out the flow of the three Eastern tributaries to India and three Western tributaries to Pakistan. The agreement segregated Pakistan’s three Western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) and three Eastern rivers (Beas, Ravi, Sutlej) to India. The Indus Water Commission met once a year and was set up to coordinate between the parties.
According to the treaty, India was allowed the diversion of water for agriculture and the construction of run-of-river hydroelectricity projects, i.e., generation of electricity by the natural elevation drop of a river; however, construction of any retention projects and water storage silos on the Western rivers that fell under Pakistan’s authority were not permitted under the treaty.
Indus water treaty has been intact despite a number of conflicts (for instance, it survived the two major Indo-Pak wars in 1948 and 1965 and incidents such as the Indian Parliament attack in 2011 and the Mumbai attacks in November 2008 when the prospect of India cutting off Pakistan’s supply was very likely yet it didn’t withdraw from the IWT); suggesting cooperation and norms can persist despite hostility. It has not been amended so far, for any changes require both parties to seek a modification since both countries barely come on good terms with each other. In total, 118 meetings of the Indus Water Commission have taken place and it’s expected to meet this year.
Under the current terms of the treaty, the two countries can resolve disputes either through a neutral expert appointed by the World Bank or at the Court of Arbitration. Pakistan has taken the latter route because it is concerned that some of India’s planned and commissioned hydropower dams will reduce flows that feed at least 80% of its irrigated agriculture. While the treaty includes a schema of conflict resolution mechanisms, the current dispute pivots around the Kishanganga and Ratle projects on Chenab. Pakistan assists in setting up a Court of Arbitration (COA) regarding its concerns, whereas India requests to appoint a neutral expert.
On January 25th, 2023, India issued a notice to Pakistan to modify the IWT within 90 days via the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), notably on the issue of Conflict Resolution Mechanisms provided in the treaty. However, Pakistan has not entertained its proposal. India, however, cannot unilaterally break apart from the treat. Additionally, terminating the treaty unilaterally has dire repercussions for India vis-a-vis its water treaties with neighbors such as Myanmar, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Hydro-Politics in the Current Environment
The latest UN Water Security Report 2023 places Pakistan on the list of critically water insecure countries. National water experts in Pakistan predict that by 2025, the chances of Pakistan’s rivers running dry are very high, and poor management and access are more the root of this problem than physical scarcity. Pakistan’s water storage capacity which currently stands at 30 days compared to the global standard of 127 days, needs to be upgraded.
Since independence, the water issue between the two South Asian neighbors has been cajoled by bilateral tensions and has become a matter of state sovereignty and territorial dispute.
Climate change and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers compared to the global average have increased the issue’s gravity and urged both sides of the border to ensure their water security at the cost of others.
The National Water Policy 2018 is a historic step in the right direction. It is a comprehensive mechanism to make collective and optimal use of all water resources in the country. It lists national priorities to deal with the water crisis. The policy suggests an increase in public sector investment to 20% by 2030 in the water sector. To coordinate between the provinces, it suggests setting up a body to represent, coordinate, and monitor the provinces. However, it doesn’t set a timeline for the development of these institutions.
Although the policy promises lofty solutions to transboundary water problems on the regional front, it lacks any material development or mechanism since no regional mechanisms exist to address them. It needs to integrate significant research and adopt a proper framework for its implementation. Moreover, according to the latest data from the United Nations, Pakistan’s population is approximately 240.8 million and is projected to increase further. While the population is booming, the quantity of water remains the same for the needs of an increasing population. The surging population and increasing urbanization and industrialization exacerbate the problem even more.
Pakistan’s political discourse on water has been active for quite a while, most notably in the 1990s after India initiated the construction of the controversial Baghlihar and Kishanganga dams. Pakistan objected to the dam’s design and its bondage capacity (Indian proposal of 37.5 mcm) with a concern that it (Kishanganga dam) would reduce the power-generating capacity of Pakistan’s Neelum-Jhelum hydroelectric project by 35%. It is a serious violation of the treaty that doesn’t permit India to expand the catchment area of any natural or artificial drainage.
Pakistan took the case to the International Court of Arbitration in 2010. After numerous proceedings and inspections of the sites along the Kishanganga River in 2013, the court presented its final verdict that India can continue the construction of dams but necessitating that it ensure a baseline flow of water to downstream Pakistan.
In 2008, India affected water flow, causing a shortage in the Chenab River, for it filled its dams in blatant disregard of the IWT.
Pakistan has serious apprehensions regarding Indian projects on Western rivers and complaints that India obscures information regarding its projects; however, according to Article Vll (2), India must inform Pakistan in the project’s planning phase. India intentionally delays negotiations to get time to complete a major portion of the project so that by the time Pakistan takes the case to the COA, it will have ample on-ground evidence to prove its stakes in the project to get an advantage in concessions vis-a-vis Pakistan.
Hydro Nationalism and Hegemony by India:
Hydro-hegemony can be established in many ways by consolidating power (economic, military, and soft power), taking advantage of upper riparian positions, or exploiting water resources. In shared transboundary water basins, upper states attempt to control the management of water bodies to yield influence in regional politics. India wields significant economic and bargaining power internationally and has been able to exploit resources by accelerating the construction of dams.
Moreover, the recent wave of nationalism in India has further exasperated and fuelled its intentions to push more anti-Pakistan agendas and policies and have a natural advantage in transboundary waters in South Asia; India scores hugely on all indicators of hydro-hegemony as control of western rivers will give it a strategic advantage and supremacy in South Asia.
Today, in India, the discourse on transboundary water with Pakistan is shaped through a nationalistic lens as it asserts that it’s not India’s water-related projects that are affecting water flow to Pakistan but Pakistan’s inefficacy, mismanagement and altering climate patterns. The opinion that resonates in Indian policy circles is that the IWT is ‘too generous to Pakistan’ as well as a tool to punish Pakistan. The recent assertion to modify IWT is because the current legal framework doesn’t allow for storage or diversion of water.
The debate of illegitimate constructions by India is averted by bringing up the issue of terrorism.
India has been ambitiously undertaking the construction of dams on the western rivers, while some proponents of revocation deem an entirely new treaty as the way forward. It is estimated to have 5100 dams, the highest number of dams after the US and China, compared to Pakistan’s 167 dams compared to Pakistan’s 167 dams.
India has comparatively more projects in line and has accelerated their development to meet the growing energy needs of a burgeoning economy and a booming population. It asserts that its projects don’t violate the IWT, thereby not understanding Pakistan’s vulnerabilities to its projects and how they restrict water flow to Pakistan. Although the IWT allows India the construction of hydropower projects on Chenab and Jhelum, provided they don’t affect the quantity of water reaching Pakistan, India doesn’t bring this into regard when it gives the rationale for its argument.
Indian constructions can affect water flow to Pakistan as they can release water and consequently flood rivers in Pakistan and affect water flows to seasonal crop irrigation in Pakistan. Such threats were shamelessly proclaimed after the Uri attack in 2016 when India threatened to break off from the IWT and flood Pakistan by opening the maximum flow of water to Pakistan. The legitimacy of using water as a tool and a weapon is not just limited to the lower policy circles in New Delhi.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been vocal in advocating scrapping of the treaty, saying ‘blood and water can’t flow together.’ Such imprudent and bellicose statements by Indian officials have exacerbated the issue more. Members of the Indian cabinet also voiced such threats after the Pulwama attacks in 2019.
India uses such nationalistic posturing and tactics to pressure and minimize any probability of bilateral negotiations, further evident by the fact that India has time and again rejected Pakistani proposals of joint investigation after staged attacks such as the Uri or Pathankot attack. India has an aggressive posture and vicious ambitions vis-a-vis the Western rivers. The construction of dams and illegal water storage will hurt Pakistan’s economy and agriculture irreversibly.
Through cleverly planned constructions, India has constructed several dams in the Indian Occupied Kashmir since the revocation of its status (by initiating almost 33 new projects on the Chenab, Jhelum, and Ravi rivers). Also, it has concealed intentions of sabotaging the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, if India does so, China, being an upper riparian to India, could also suspend Indian flow in the Brahmaputra River.
India’s Hydro Hegemony vis-a-vis Other Regional Countries
Most treaties in South Asia are bilateral and are affected by power asymmetry, favoring India, which dominates the negotiation process where it has an upper riparian position.
- India and Bangladesh: India has initiated various constructions on the Teesta River, a transboundary river shared by India and Bangladesh, where India is the upper riparian, thereby restricting the river’s flow to Bangladesh. Both have failed to reach an agreement on the Teesta River because Bangladesh isn’t at par with India in terms of economic or political power, and India exploits its upper riparian position. Moreover, the Ganges Treaty that has been so smoothly implemented between India and Bangladesh will cease its applicability in 2026, the terms of which can only be renegotiated if India considers the climatic changes and the vulnerabilities of the lower riparian Bangladesh. In addition, the National River Linking Project, a mega inter-basin water project conceived in 1982 that aims to transfer water from water surplus to water deficit basins and address the water storage issues of India, has agitated contention between India and Bangladesh, wherein the latter fears that the project could flood Bangladesh.
- India and Nepal: Nepal too believes that India has yielded benefits unilaterally in the treaties by assigning an unequal share of mountainous water resources to it. Nepal argues that the treaties with India don’t provide it a fair deal in terms of benefits and are affected by the political equation between the two.
India’s hegemony and unilateral redirection of water in the region are nefarious, damaging the interests of its co-riparians. Moreover, India is accused by its co-riparians of not communicating its projects or hiding the hydro data on the transboundary rivers projects. India is willing to be a sub-regional hegemon; however, it refuses to take any responsibility for engagement or cooperation on the regional waterfront; instead, it seeks resource capture and ultimately builds up distrust and conflict among states.
This behavior of India as a regional bully has rendered South Asia of any constructive dialogue has jeopardized any attempts of any water-related management, and has led to diplomatic deadlock on water issues.
Undoubtedly, hydro-politics will remain South Asia’s top priority security concern in the coming years, the future trajectory of which will be ascertained by the political stature and resolve to solve this issue. Although the Indus Water Treaty is one of the successful water treaties and has sustained despite the hostility that prevails between the two South Asian rivals, The treaty needs renewal in certain aspects, such as the issues of climate, ecological preservation, installation of transboundary warning systems and environmental and impact assessment. It simply divides the basin between two countries without considering the principle of equitable distribution of resources.
While India has tried to push and pressurize Pakistan using water and the IWT, Pakistan has kept the position of negotiations and equal terms and division of resources. To address the plethora of challenges that can arise in the future, Pakistan must use all legal rationale and actively engage diplomatic channels to forward its case vi-a-vis transboundary water sharing with India. It’s imperative that Pakistan take proactive steps to address its water demands, especially through the lens of the IWT, and frame a water policy that addresses new and emerging threats and challenges concerning water and its management, such as floods, droughts, water scarcity, management, and climatic change simultaneously.
The political deficit between the two nations has impeded any effort to resolve the water issue. Any positive development on the water problem in the Indus Basin can only be materialized if both India and Pakistan are sincere in their efforts to carry out a comprehensive dialogue that aims at ushering cooperation in the basin and shun any efforts to sabotage the negotiating process. Since the region is vulnerable to climate change, inter-regional cooperation should be pursued. Endeavors such as the Hindu Kush–Himalayan [Hydrological Cycle Observing System] HYCOS project, started in 2001, are important for information sharing and developing natural disaster management capability in South Asia. Water experts from South Asian countries can consult on water-related issues in Himalayan basins on regional forums.
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Article II states ―All waters of the Eastern Rivers shall be available for the unrestricted use of India….except for Domestic Use and Non-Consumptive Use, Pakistan shall be under obligation to let flow, and shall not permit any interference with, the waters of the Sutlej Main and the Ravi Main in the reaches where these rivers flow in Pakistan and have not yet finally crossed into Pakistan.‖ Article III states ―Pakistan shall receive for unrestricted use all those waters of the Western Rivers which India is under obligation to let flow…and shall not permit any interference with these waters, except..‖ as under the provisions of Paragraph 2 for the following (i) Domestic Use; (ii) Non Consumptive Use; (iii) Agricultural Use, as set out in Annexure C; (iv) Generation of hydro-electric Power, as set out in Annexure D; (V) India cannot store any water or construct any storage works on the Western Rivers as set out in Annexure D and E.
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The author is an International Relations scholar at the National Defense University, Islamabad. Her research interests include security and terrorism, European politics, and hydro-politics, focusing on South Asia. She writes research papers and opinion articles for various journals.