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Evolution of Water Institutions in the Indus River Basin: Reflections from the Law of the Colorado River

69 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2017 Last revised: 26 Oct 2017

Erum Sattar

Harvard Law School

Jason Anthony Robison

University of Wyoming College of Law

Daniel McCool

University of Utah

Date Written: August 21, 2017


Transboundary water institutions in the Indus River Basin can be fairly characterized as broken in key respects. International relations between Indian and Pakistan over the Indus Waters Treaty, and interprovincial relations within Pakistan over the 1991 Water Accord, both speak to this sentiment. Stemming from research undertaken a the authors for the Harvard Water Federalism Project and the U.S. Agency for International Development, this Article seeks to spur the evolution of the Indus River Basin’s water institutions by offering a comparative perspective from North America’s most “institutionally encompassed” basin — the Colorado River Basin. Mindful of the importance of context for comparative water law and policy scholarship, the Article begins with overviews of the Colorado and Indus basins. In turn, the Article considers in greater detail major water-related challenges facing the latter basin — e.g., climate change and overallocation. Against this backdrop, the Article ultimately turns to analysis and prescription. Examining a host of topics involving transboundary water allocation, conservation, and governance, the Article considers key institutions associated with these topics in the Colorado River Basin, and reflects on how, if at all, they may serve as reference points for institutional evolution in the Indus Basin. We recognize that many of the proposals we have made will be expensive.  But compared to military operations, they are quite modest in terms of expense, not to mention loss of life and destruction of property. Having said that, we have prioritized solutions that maximize individual and local freedom to the maximum extent possible.  This means relying upon voluntary market-based transfers that protect the vulnerable, favoring incentives rather than regulations, and creating a reward structure that includes benefits other than water.

Forthcoming in the Michigan Journal of Law Reform.

Keywords: Law of the River, Colorado River Basin, Indus River Basin, Federalism, Indus Waters Treaty, Comparative Water Law and Policy

Suggested Citation

Sattar, Erum and Robison, Jason Anthony and McCool, Daniel, Evolution of Water Institutions in the Indus River Basin: Reflections from the Law of the Colorado River (August 21, 2017). Available at SSRN:

Erum Sattar (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Cambridge, MA
United States
6179533638 (Phone)
6179533638 (Fax)


Jason Robison

University of Wyoming College of Law ( email )

1000 E. University Ave.
Dept. 3035
Laramie, WY 82071
United States


Daniel McCool

University of Utah ( email )

1645 E. Campus Center
Salt Lake City, UT 84112
United States

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