Talk29 Pakistan's Water Apportionment Accord of 1991: 25 Years and beyond

Thursday, 29 November, 2018


The apportionment of waters of the Indus River System between the provinces of Pakistan is widely hailed as an historic agreement. This Accord, signed into effect in 1991, lacks a clearly stated objective and hence it is difficult to review it against its objectives.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basin. The guest speaker, Dr. Arif Anwar, is an irrigation/water resources expert with significant years of experience working in that sector of Pakistan. He has spent over 15 years at University of Southampton UK as an academic and is currently working at International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

The talk presented a detailed thematic view of the Accord that interprets the literature and data sets that have become available over the last 25 years. It also discussed the challenges the Accord has to overcome in order to improve apportionment of water between provinces and reduce mistrust between stakeholders.

The 1991 Water Apportionment Accord - Overview

After 1947, irrigation water was allocated among the provinces through informal, ad hoc arrangements. A number of commissions and committees eventually led to the apportionment of waters of the Indus River System between the Provinces of Pakistan in 1991. The Accord is an agreement based largely upon the historical use of water by the provinces; Punjab 47%, Sindh 42% Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 8% and Baluchistan 3%. Rather than a word of law, this Accord is a consensus document, signed by the highest officer of each of the four provinces of Pakistan and ratified by the Prime Minister. The Indus River System Authority (IRSA) was established through an Act of Parliament (Government of Pakistan 1992) with the responsibility of implementing the Accord.

Apportionment by Volume of water

The baseline volume stated in the clause 2 of the Accord is set at 117.35 million acres feet (MAF) with the top slice of 3 MAF going to the civil canals of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, leaving the apportioned volume at 114.35 MAF. The Accord itself presents the apportionment in absolute volumes only, disaggregated spatially over the four provinces of Pakistan and temporally over the summer and winter seasons. Punjab takes the position that this figure is notional because this amount has never been achieved historically even in the best water years, and the distribution formula was based on the expectation of further construction of storages (as referenced in clause 6 ). Sindh interprets clause 2 as without caveats, and poses that apportionment should be adjusted pro-rata when baseline volume of 117.35 is not achieved. It states that clause 6 does not add any caveats to clause 2.

Balance River Supplies and Shortages

Balance river supplies, while having no stated definition in the Accord, are interpreted as the volume of water above the baseline volume of 117.35. Clause 4 apportions these flows in percentages rather than volume, with Punjab and Sindh allocated 37% each, Balochistan 12% and KPK 14%. This clause is often cited by Punjab as its magnanimity, since due to clause 2 its portions is 48.92% so its takes a 12% reduction in any balance supplies. Sindh also takes a modest reduction in balance supplies, while the smaller provinces benefit the greatest in the case of future additional storage of water.

Clause 14e states that '...any surpluses maybe used by another province but this would not establish any rights to such uses.' This clause is interpreted as water trading between provinces is not permitted. This disadvantages KPK and Baluchistan as they cannot trade their water surpluses, while Punjab reaps the benefit to utilize that surplus. Sindh, being the lower riparian, is unable to benefit from the surplus as Punjab gets first call.

The controversial clauses of the Accord are Clause 14(a) and 14(b) . Punjab interprets these two sub clauses as meaning that the proportions of 1977-1982 should be used whenever there is a shortage (inflow volume less than the baseline volume) under such circumstances apportioning should be based on the proportions of 1977-1982 period. Sindh disputes this interpretation and takes the view that sub clauses state that 1977-1982 data will guide pattern and not proportions, and does not introduce a different apportionment for shortages. Any reversion to 1977-82 proportions advantages the Punjab the most over Clause 2, KPK and Baluchistan are significantly disadvantaged which is why IRSA when apportioning water states KPK & Balochistan are exempted from shortages. Sindh is largely unaffected but is aggrieved by benefit gained by Punjab, and contests the exemptions to KPK and Baluchistan as being in violation of the Accord.

Environmental Flows

For the Sindh, flows to the sea are critical, whereas the other provinces perceive this as a Sindh issue. Clause 7 of the Accord recognized the need for environmental flows that Sindh had proposed at the level of 10 MAF downstream of Kotri Barrage. While the signatories agreed to the need for minimum flow to the sea, they did not agree on the quantity, and deferred the decision to further studies. The Accord did not bind the signatories to the findings of any particular commissioned study and/or to how such flows might be accommodated. An international panel of experts was constituted and reported (Gonzalez et al. 2005) that a minimum discharge of 3.6 MAF per year and 25 MAF in any five year period. Until 1999-2000, the volume flowing into the Arabian Sea consistently exceeded the recommended environmental flow. From 1999-2000 onward they have occasionally fallen below this threshold.

Indus River Systems Authority

For the implementation of this Accord, the Indus River Systems Authority (IRSA) was established in Lahore with representation from all provinces. The Accord does not specify operating rules, but leaves it to the authority of IRSA. The present distribution mechanism of the IRSA is based on three scenarios:

o If water availability is greater than actual average system uses of 77-82, it is distributed as per clause 14(b) (77-82 portions).

o If water availability is greater than actual average system uses of 77-82 but less than baseline volume of 117.35 MAF, then the system average is preserved, the remaining is first top sliced for KPK civil canals and then apportioned according to clause 2.

o If water availability is greater than the baseline volume of 117.35 MAF, the distribution outlined by clause 2 is preserved and surplus is apportioned according to clause 4.


The 1991 Accord is a seminal document, unchanged over the last quarter of a century. Since it lacks a clearly stated objective it is difficult to ascertain whether the Accord has achieved what it set out to. It also falls short on addressing a number of important issues such as environmental flows and water quality. The water balance of the Indus basin also lacks accuracy. Going forward, it would be prudent not to consider re-writing the Accord, but rather work with in its existing framework to improve water accounting, and supplement the Accord with agreed and published operational rules to ensure equitable apportionment of water resources between the provinces.