Jal Vivad: An Enquiry Into India’s Water Disputes

By Mallika A Sondhi

In this follow-up piece on our series on International Water Conflicts, we are focusing on India and its water disputes.

India has been blessed with ample water resources. With over 4% of the world’s freshwater being available in this South Asian country. The country also experiences 1170 mm of average rainfall per year with 1720 cubic meters of fresh water available per person annually. Yet, millions of Indian citizens still suffer from water shortages and access to clean, drinking water. 

An agrarian country, India requires a large amount of water to sustain its crops, livestock and fields. It still lacks the appropriate irrigation infrastructure required to provide its farmers with the adequate water they need to achieve maximum efficiency. Most farmers rely on using the inconsistent and variable supply of groundwater. The Central Government has attempted to improve this situation through numerous river linking and dam projects.  Such as the Sardar Sarovar dam, Krishna- Godavari Link and the Koyna Dam project. Yet, the country is still struggling to harness its vast water resources and is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Most of the substantial rainwater received goes to waste instead of being stored and later utilized. 

One of those attempts has been made through the Jal Jeevan Mission. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has helped accelerate the building of many water harvesting structures but still, NITI AAYOG has predicted that by 2030 the amount of water required by the population will exceed the amount of water available.

This estimate however doesn’t take into account the water that may be lost through the rivers that India shares with other countries. 

The Brahmaputra Dispute

The Brahmaputra and the Indus are the two rivers that most tension is centered around. The 3 riparian nations of the Brahmaputra, China (Tibet), Bangladesh, and India have not signed a joint treaty but the latter two nations have individual understandings with China, the country from where the river originates. China and India have had recent developments in the agreements over the river, with China now sharing hydrological information about the river with India to help the nation be aware of any incoming floods and thus, prepare for the same. Farmers in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam are highly dependent on this river for water, and the citizens of these states are also reliant on its resources. For them, these details and knowledge of the river are absolutely essential, especially during flood season.

There has been a lot of speculation over the status of the flow of this river due to China’s ambitious dam projects on it. The upper riparian country has pacified India and Bangladesh stating that there will be no change in the usual amount of water received by them.

Tensions with Bangladesh

However, this is not the biggest cause of water tension for these two lower riparian countries as Bangladesh and India share another 53 rivers that cause strenuous tensions between the two nations. These rivers are mostly distributaries and tributaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra. With most of the rivers originating or flowing from India, Bangladesh faces a major disadvantage as the lower riparian nation to all these rivers. This influences the status quo and hinders a lot of bilateral talks and understandings as water is a major issue for any nation, especially an agrarian one. However, while there is some stress between the two, it has not resulted in any severe violence or frustration.

Tensions with Pakistan

Another pressing concern India has over International rivers and the distribution of resources is the sharing of rivers with her sister nation, Pakistan. The bloody and fraught history and relationship that these two neighbors face is now known to all. Unfortunately, the issue of rivers and water further strains their relationship. When the Britsh mapped out and divided the land, creating the boundaries for the two new nations of India and Pakistan, they left the control of the rivers in upstream India. And this created an uncomfortable upstream-downstream power structure between the already warring nations.

Pakistan especially depends more heavily on the waters of the Indus than India does, however, the control of the river lies with the latter. India has planned many dam and hydroelectric power projects on rivers that it shares with Pakistan, most of which have been vehemently criticized by the lower riparian nation. Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, any further disturbance to their already meager water resources will spell a calamity for the nation. 

Political relations between the two countries have been tense since the beginning, and now when the world is dealing with the repercussions of climate change, their relationship has never been so charged and volatile. India has taken to refusing diplomacy and tact when dealing with river conflicts with the lower riparian nation on accounts of Pakistan’s affiliations and support of terror organizations.  Often threatening to reduce or cut off the supply of water to Pakistan, India wields her status as an upper riparian nation as such. 

While there is an Indus Basin Treaty signed by the two riparian nations the conflict never ceases or resolves. International mediatory parties stay wary of these conflicts and do not get involved due to the severe complicated nature of the issue. This is after the Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project dispute was brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the situation got vast media coverage and was finally concluded after three years of tricky negotiations. Most observers of the situation keep reiterating the importance of cooperation and conversations between the riparian nations, particularly in the face of climate change where the entirety of the Indus Basin has been affected and is facing the brunt of a major water shortage.

Domestic Conflicts

While these conflicts have caused great tensions and violence, yet it is seen that there is have not been any serious armed disputes. This sort of extreme violence has only been seen in domestic disputes, the most brutal and infamous of which is the Cauvery river dispute between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This dispute originates from a pre-independence treaty signed by the then kingdom of Mysore and the Madras Province. The river basin covers a large portion of land in both these states but following the agreement of the treaty, Tamil Nadu has been assigned a larger portion of the river’s resources. This treaty was drafted by the British but post-independence when states of the country were being created, Coorg, the place of origin of the Cauvery river, became a part of Karnataka. The government of Karnataka thus, felt obliged to greater rights over the river, and when denied the same, they restricted the flow of water into Tamil Nadu. The repercussions of this action were ferocious altercations between the citizens of either state. The Central Government failed to control the violence and despite the Supreme Court giving Judgement on this issue, it was not resolved and the citizens of Karanataka especially were unhappy with the decision that was made by the apex court. So, this violence continued until 2018 after which the Kaveri Management Board was established.


Conflicts are eternal, what matters is how they are dealt with. India has managed to keep her international water conflicts at bay but her domestic conflicts often get out of hand and become violent at the first chance that people see. The first thing that the government must learn before endeavoring to solve such conflict is that Jal hi Jeevan hain (water is life).

Mallika is currently a student at Jindal Global University

Image credits – Observer Research Foundation (ORF)

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