Skip to main content
A report by Michelle Kirsitna Dixon

A view of Neelum River in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan administered Kashmir
image by: Muhammad Ashar, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Water is an economic and political force that has been manipulated and exploited for power and control. All the while, it is one of the few salient features of the natural world that actualize the interpersonal relationship between humans and nature.

In this report, we will examine the Indus River System and its tributaries. First, we will analyze the history of the Indian subcontinent with an emphasis on Partition. We will then discuss how the Partition severed communities and the natural environment, specifically the Indus River System. Lastly, we will examine how the Partition led to transboundary water disputes and the subsequent pollution of the Indus system. In doing so, we hope to emphasize the political and social makeup of water and the histories attached to it.

The Partition of India 

Prior to British colonization, the Indian subcontinent consisted of regional kingdoms known as princely states occupied by varying religious groups such as Hindus, Muslims Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis, and Jews (Roy 2021). Each princely state maintained its own culture, traditions, and leadership. Then, in the 1500s, Europeans colonized India with “coastal trading settlements” (Roy 2021). The English East India Company soon became the “primary colonial power” in India (Roy 2021). 


By the 19th century, the British categorized Indians based on religious identity and “[attached] political representation to them” (Tunzelmann 2017). Some scholars claim that religious categorizations propagated hostility amongst Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims causing the polarization of religious groups. Alex von Tunzelmann states, “… many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged”(2017).


The financial burdens of World War Two encouraged Britain to desert India (Dalrymple 2015; “India – Pakistan Relations” n.d.). Their departure, a haphazard endeavor, launched an ongoing consequence for the Indian subcontinent. In June 1947, the British declared a partition of India resulting in a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan (Dalrymple 2015; “India – Pakistan Relations” n.d.). Half of the subcontinent, along with 562 princely states, were left without British rule. “The provision was that each state could remain independent, join Pakistan, or accede to India” (“India – Pakistan Relations” n.d.). Families migrated to either Pakistan or India, seemingly based on religion (Kermani 2017). 


Soon, the Indian subcontinent became “a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other — a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented” (Dalrymple 2015). Nisid Hajari, author of Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition (2017), states: 


Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.


British historian William Dalrymple (2015) states, “Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence”. Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal identified the partition as “the central historical event in twentieth century South Asia.” She writes, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future” (Dalrymple 2015). 


The Partition of the Indus River System 


The Partition not only severed communities, but also severed the natural environment, notably the Indus River System. The Indus System flows through India, Pakistan, and China’s Tibet region with six tributaries: the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. Both India and Pakistan relied on the Indus System to manage their irrigation infrastructures (Thakur 2022). 


In 1951, Pakistan and India asked the World Bank to finance their irrigation projects on the Indus System, prompting the World Bank to volunteer as a mediator for the countries (Thakur 2022). This resulted in the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty, which defined how the Indus River System would be divided (Thakur 2022).


Pakistan took the three western rivers: the Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum. India took the three eastern rivers: Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. This permitted India to use Pakistan’s western rivers for agricultural purposes, allowed for the development of “run of the river” hydroelectric plants, and gave India control of upstream barrages (Braulik et al. 2015, 33, Thakur 2022). 


Transboundary Water Disputes 

The Neelum River, a significant tributary of the Jhelum River, is encompassed within the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960. This treaty grants Pakistan control over the Neelum, while allowing India to use it for non-consumptive purposes like hydroelectric power generation, as long as such use does not significantly reduce Pakistan’s water flow („The Indus Water Treaty 1960,“ World Bank Group 2022).

Two significant projects have emerged under this treaty framework:

  1. Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Project (NJHP) by Pakistan: Initiated to capitalize on the IWT provisions, Pakistan planned this project on the Neelum River in 1988, aiming to utilize water resources for hydroelectricity before India developed similar projects. This project sought to maximize the benefits accorded under the treaty (Directorate General of Audit). 

Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project by India: Commenced in 2007, this project on the Kishanganga River, called Neelum as it enters Pakistan, had a significant impact on Pakistan’s project. While India maintained the minimum flow of water as per treaty obligations (Khan 2013, Iqbal 2018),the project still led to reduced water flow to Pakistan’s downstream project, causing concern for Pakistan (Ahmad 2021). India’s dam reroutes Jhelum’s waters to an underground powerhouse preventing it from flowing into Pakistan (see Figure 1).

In 2018, both the Kishanganga and Neelum Jhelum hydroelectric projects became operational. Meanwhile, disputes continued, with Pakistan seeking to challenge Indian hydroelectric plants. On April 6, 2022, the World Bank resumed discussions on whether the Kishenganga hydroelectric plant’s technical designs violate the Indus Water Treaty (World Bank Resumes 2022). This situation is a notable example of how Partition remapped transboundary rivers and how such remapping induced contestations over ownership and power of the land.  

Trauma and Water Pollution

So far, we’ve seen a severing of families, land, and now, a more relational severing between the land and people. The trauma perpetuated by the Partition innately detached generations from Pakistan’s natural environment resulting in disengagement with the land as Indians had to call Pakistan their new home. 


The Indus, the tributary of the Indus River System, is “Pakistan’s primary freshwater source – on which 90 percent of its agriculture depends — and a critical outlet of hydropower generation for both [India and Pakistan]” (Wheeler 2011). Along the banks of the Indus are shrines to Sufi and Hindu saints suggesting the esteem Pakistanis hold for, what they refer to as, the “The Indus, the Father of the Rivers, the Blue Water, or the Lion River” (Hadid and Sattar 2022). The shrines reflect honor, but the pollution connotes a different narrative. 


Pakistani filmmaker Wajahat Malik trekked through the 2,000-mile Indus and found a “wide, but shallow” river with reduced flow caused by dams, illegal water extraction, and climate change (Hadid and Sattar 2022). The World Bank sampled plastic waste in Pakistan’s Indus River System to highlight “plastics-in-rivers as a major policy” and “expand the agenda of SWM [solid waste management] to include protection of rivers” (World Bank 2022, 1). They found that plastics make up 40 percent of the waste, green waste makes up 25 percent, such as leaves, branches, etc., and textile waste makes up 15 percent (World Bank 2022, 42). Pakistan’s textile industry is the fourth largest consumer of plastic, “consuming 280,000 tonnes of plastic annually” and “responsible for 13 percent of plastic waste generated in the country” (World Bank 2022, 42). Such pollution carries into the Arabian Sea delivering around 10,000 tonnes of macro-plastics each year (World Bank 2022, 46). 


The solution for waste doesn’t solely rest in behavioral modifications, rather an evaluation of a region’s history and how such history has informed and influenced the present. The Partition molded certain paradigms for Pakistanis and Indians, and such paradigms have expressed itself through pollution and disputes. In light of Partition, there is reason to believe that existing pollution in the Indus is caused by Pakistani’s detachment from their land resulting in a lack of ownership, responsibility, and potential care to protect the river.  


Therefore, Malik states “I want Pakistanis to know that the river is the main artery, it’s the lifeline of Pakistan. It gives us bread. It nurtures us, our fields. It is everything to us. And I want to tell them that they should protect rivers, especially [the] Indus” (Hadid and Sattar 2022).  


Water has a rich political and social history that is worth examining in light of the exploitation and manipulation it undergoes. The Indus River System and the history of the region surrounding the river attest to a type of shared experience both nature and the Indian subcontinent experienced during the Partition – a partition of their communities and the land. This is reminiscent of claims that water has memory. A niche group of scientists believes that as “water travels it picks up and stores information from all of the places that it has traveled through, which can thereby connect people to a lot of different places and sources of information when they drink this water, depending on the journey that it has been on” (Unified Science Course 2018). The discoveries have been classified as pseudoscience, but it’s thought-provoking in light of the quotidian trauma nature undergoes. Therefore, in considering how we engage with water, we must also remember the histories connected to rivers and its surrounding communities.


Ahmad, Omair. “The Indus Waters Treaty: Caught between a Dispute and a Hard Place.” The Third Pole, 22 Apr. 2021,

Braulik, Gill & Noureen, Uzma & Arshad, Masood & Reeves, Randall. (2015). Brauliketal2015. 

Dalrymple, William. “The Mutual Genocide of Indian Partition.” The New Yorker, 22 June 2015,

Directorate General of Audit WAPDA. Performance Audit Report on Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Project Muzaffarabad . 

Hadid, Diaa, and Abdul Sattar. “Floating in a Rubber Dinghy, a Filmmaker Documents the Indus River’s Water Woes.” NPR, NPR, 28 June 2022, 

Hajari, Nisid. Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. Amberley, 2017. 

“India-Pakistan Relations: A 50-Year History.” Asia Society,

“Indus River Basin, Pakistan.” Indus River Basin – Pakistan, World Wildlife Fund, 

“Indus Waters Kishenganga Arbitration (Pakistan v. India), Final Award, 20 Dec 2013.” Indus Waters Kishenganga Arbitration (Pakistan v. India), Final Award, 20 Dec 2013, 

Iqbal, Anwar. Explainer: What Is the Kishanganga Water Dispute, Dawn, 23 May 2018, 

Kermani, Secunder. “How Jinnah’s Ideology Shapes Pakistan’s Identity.” BBC News, BBC, 18 Aug. 2017,

Khan, Mubarak Zeb. “India Told to Ensure Water Flow for Neelum-Jhelum Project.” DAWN.COM, 22 Dec. 2013, 

Kiani, Khaleeq. “969MW Project Shut after Damage Detected.” DAWN.COM, 7 July 2022, 

NHPC Limited: Projects: Power Stations: Kishanganga,;lg=eng&amp;CatId=1&amp;ProjectId=32. 

Roy, Haimanti. Why Was India Split into Two Countries? Why Was India Split into Two Countries? – Haimanti Roy, Teded, 21 June 2021, 

“Scientists Show That Water Has Memory.” Unified Science Course, 5 Oct. 2018, 

Thakur, Jyoti. “Explained: What Is Indus Waters Treaty and What Are Pending Issues between India and Pakistan.” IndiaTimes, 11 Apr. 2022,

The Indus Waters Treaty 1960 (with Annexes). 16 Jan. 1962,

Tunzelmann, Von Alex. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 

Water Conflict and Cooperation between India and Pakistan, Climate Diplomacy ,

World Bank. “Plastic Waste: A Journey Down the Indus River Basin in Pakistan.” Open Knowledge Repository, Washington, DC, 1 June 2022,  

World Bank Group. “Fact Sheet: The Indus Waters Treaty 1960 and the Role of the World Bank.” World Bank, World Bank Group, 6 Apr. 2022, 

World Bank Group. “World Bank Resumes Processes under the Indus Waters Treaty.” World Bank, World Bank Group, 6 Apr. 2022, 

Wheeler, William. “India and Pakistan at Odds over Shrinking Indus River.” Science, National Geographic, 13 Oct. 2011,

Leave a Reply