Cons on Haines, 'Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan'

Daniel Haines
Jason Cons

Daniel Haines. Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 272 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-064866-4.

Reviewed by Jason Cons (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Asia (March, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

Sharing the Indus Waters

Scholarship on state formation, especially in South Asia, has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. On the one hand, renewed attention to the workings of bureaucracy and infrastructure has directed anthropologists and sociologists back to the everyday workings of the state. On the other hand, renewed attention to the politics of territory making has heralded a set of new ways to think about the historical production of space and borders in colonial and postcolonial South Asia. This later field draws on a rich tradition of scholarship tracing the everyday practices of border formation in the moments leading up to and following Partition, as exemplified by such authors as Willem van Schendel and Joya Chatterji. It also draws on new work in critical geography, perhaps most closely associated with Stuart Elden, on the making of territory. A focus on territory, as much of this new work shows, breathes new life into the study of borders, sovereignty, and security. It opens new ways to understand the relationship between the political technologies of measuring, managing, and controlling space; the material and ecological properties of landscapes; and the affective dimensions of national territory—the politics of blood and soil. Daniel Haines’s excellent and highly readable book is a worthy contribution to this literature. By rewriting the history of the Indus Water Treaty through the lens of territory, Haines shows how landscapes and bodies of water are transformed into political objects—central sites in the making of postcolonial state and nation. In doing so, Haines places environmental politics at the heart of postcolonial South Asian borders.

Divided Rivers tells the story of water sharing in the post-Partition Indus basin. The centerpiece of the story is the negotiation around the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. Haines is at pains to complicate narratives of the treaty as a techno-rational solution to an environmental problem. Instead, he situates his discussion of the treaty across scales: addressing both the geopolitics of the Cold War and the everyday, quotidian negotiations of water management across this newly minted border. Haines grounds his analysis in what he argues were emergent, contested, and differential understandings of territory in India and Pakistan. He shows that various projects of working out the relationship between territory and citizenship, nation, identity, and state form the troubled backdrop of the question of water sharing. Indeed, they shaped the specific logics and claims to sovereign control and access to water in a sensitive political space.

The book is roughly divided into three sections. In the first two chapters, Haines lays out the logic of his territorial framework. He contrasts an emergent Indian ideology of absolute sovereignty over water flows—an argument that upstream powers can do what they wish with water within their own border—with Pakistan’s downstream claim to a principle of territorial integrity, the right to continue receiving the water to which it has been historically accustomed. Haines traces the ways that these ideologies were leveraged, showing the origins of the Indus dispute as a search for power and legitimacy. The water of the Indus was of critical economic necessity for both states. But the claims to the Indus also were a form of nation making, where control of the water became a marker of fitness to govern.

If these two absolutist territorial notions structured political debate, they by no means constitute a comprehensive way to understand the politics of cross-border water. In the subsequent two chapters, Haines goes about complicating these visions by arguing that they were never adequate to explain the actual politics of water management on the ground. He demonstrates this by examining the complicated riverine and political geographies of Kashmir, and the divided canal networks of Punjab. In doing so, he is particularly attentive to the ways that the actual physical shapes and flows of river and canal networks were themselves generative of politics. As he notes, such networks “were not a neutral backdrop to the playing out of the India-Pakistan rivalry, but actively shaped border disputes” (p. 106).

In the final three chapters, Haines gets to the heart of his subject: the 1960 Indus Water Treaty and its aftereffects. Here, he presents a revisionist reading of this process that borrows heavily from scholars of development and techno-politics. He offers a lively exploration of US and the World Bank’s involvement in the water negotiations, showing that the inability of the bank and its representatives to conceive of the problem of water sharing as anything other than a technocratic problem set the stage for a range of increasingly politicized negotiations to come. The treaty, and its agreement to make the control of water systems as mutually independent as possible, was, as Haines shows, an outcome of a highly contingent set of negotiations—the product of a political moment in which cross-border cooperation, temporarily, seemed to enhance political futures of politicians on both sides. Thus, while the treaty may have provided a solution for water sharing, it fundamentally failed to address the sources of tension behind the dispute itself. In a final chapter, Haines assesses the relationship between the Indus Water Treaty and a range of other cross-border water challenges, notably those in Bengal, showing that the image of cooperation that emerged from the Indus Water Treaty was more phantasmagoric than a durable reality.

Haines’s book makes for gripping reading. He writes in a lively fashion while still remaining engaged with a range of contemporary theoretical concerns. His study thus productively contributes to a growing critical literature that brings the tools of geography and political ecology to bear on the question of colonial and postcolonial state formation in South Asia. It also articulates new scholarship on the history of development, spearheaded by such authors as Daniel Immerwahr and Nick Cullather. Yet the book’s true strength lies in Haines’s ability to animate the complex geophysical and political details of water sharing and his ability to map the fraught interplay between national (and nationalist) imperative and the everyday demands of making the border work. It offers a strong argument for rethinking history through the lenses of water and territory.

The problems with this work are, to my mind, few. Haines’s writing is clear and accessible, making this a book ripe for adoption in graduate and undergraduate classes across multiple fields. But this accessibility does mean that there are lengthy passages that rehearse well-known stories of Partition and its aftermath. These are summaries rather than fresh takes for area experts. Moreover, some of Haines’s claims to the novelty of his approach are perhaps overstated. While putting environmental politics and territory back into the narrative of decolonization may be an unfinished project, it is hardly a novel one in South Asia or beyond. Finally, while Haines is conscious of the ways that issues in river management articulate with other border questions, the book is much more concerned with placing rivers at the heart of debates over the border than with exploring their imbrications with other issues. This is especially notable in his discussion of river sharing in Bengal, where the problem of river management appears as the central problem in postcolonial border negotiations, rather than one of a set of vexed challenges in the newly divided territories.

These are minor quibbles with a book that is, overall, an excellent contribution to historicizing notions of territory and animating discussions of environmental politics in colonial and postcolonial settings. Divided Rivers is critical reading for scholars interested in the history of contemporary debates over water sharing in the region. It demonstrates the value of taking hydropolitics seriously: of attending not only to the physical properties of rivers but also to the ways that they become bound up in broader debates about the nature of sovereignty and territory.

Citation: Jason Cons. Review of Haines, Daniel, Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018. URL:

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