Blood, Water, and the Indus Waters Treaty

56 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2020 Last revised: 19 Jun 2020

Date Written: December 27, 2019


The contested and divided province of Jammu and Kashmir, situated on the western side of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Mountains is one of the most dangerous and heavily militarized places on earth. It is a Muslim-majority borderland harboring contested territorial claims of three nuclear powers—India, Pakistan, and China. Through it flow the headwaters of the six major tributaries that form the massive Indus Basin, the essential fresh water source for Pakistan and for upwards of 300 million Indians and Pakistanis. Since 1960, the unusual Indus Waters Treaty has governed the use of these waters. The treaty forwards a water-division rather than a water-sharing arrangement. Pakistan is assigned the three major western tributaries (the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab Rivers), and India is assigned the three eastern tributaries (the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej Rivers). Multiple changes in circumstance, principally due to population growth and climate change tax the operation of the treaty, which has been praised as one of the world’s most successful transboundary water treaties and perhaps the best example of decades-long cooperation between these two bitter enemies. Recent events, linking Pakistan-based terrorist attacks, Hindu nationalism, and constitutional changes to the status of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, resulted in India’s announcement of its intention to capture all unutilized water flowing into Pakistan from its eastern tributaries. This hard legalization of the terms of the treaty threatens to take the Indus Waters Treaty to its breaking point while evincing existential anxieties in Pakistan over tightening water supply that already make it the third most water stressed country in the world. This article reviews the combustible interface of international riparian law and international customary law with the geopolitics of one of the most dangerous corners of the world, suggesting that the business as usual approach for the Indus Waters Treaty no longer provides a meaningful solution. Backed into a corner from which no ready pathway for revision prevails, this article argues that the parties can only at best undertake much needed domestic breathing space for the Indus Waters Treaty, until that time when an environment for meaningful hydro-diplomacy can take hold.

Keywords: Indus Waters Treaty, Kashmir, terrorism, transboundary water, Ladakh, China, Watercourse Convention, India, Pakistan, Pulwama

Suggested Citation

Rossi, Christopher, Blood, Water, and the Indus Waters Treaty (December 27, 2019). Minnesota Journal of International Law, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2020, Available at SSRN: or

Christopher Rossi (Contact Author)

UiT, Arctic University of Norway ( email )

UiT Norges arktiske universitet
Postboks 6050 Langnes
Tromsø, Troms 9037
9019 (Fax)

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