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

Transboundary water institutions in the Indus River Basin can be fairly characterized as broken in key respects. International relations between India and Pakistan over the Indus Waters Treaty, as well as interprovincial relations within Pakistan over the 1991 Water Accord, speak to this sentiment. Stemming from research undertaken by the authors for the Harvard Water Federalism Project and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), 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, including 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. Many of the proposals in the Article are expensive. But compared to military operations, they are quite modest in terms of expense and minimize the risk of loss of life and destruction of property. Still, the Article prioritizes solutions that maximize individual and local freedom to the greatest 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.