Some 270 million people in four countries depend on the Indus River and its tributaries. But population growth, mismanagement, and climate change all threaten this crucial water supply. Follow the Indus from its source in Tibet to the Arabian Sea, and explore the issues surrounding this essential system.
Countries with high water stress (those that withdraw too much from their systems) and low water productivity (those deriving little economic value from the water they take) are more likely to damage ecosystems and go thirsty during droughts.
Water productivity vs. stress, 2017*
Among Indus River Basin
countries and countries with
more than 100 million people
High water stress
In Pakistan, about 60 percent of water from the Indus and its tributaries is withdrawn for human use; a third of that evaporates from irrigation canals and flooded fields. Flow is also taken up by natural ecosystems as the river winds through semiarid plains.
In the Indus River Basin 18,495 glaciers help supply water to the river. Climate change has accelerated glacial melting in the Himalaya, adding to the risk of future water shortages.
area in basin
Average glacier mass loss
(feet of water equivalent loss per year)
More than 1
1 to 0.65
0.64 to 0.3
Less than 0.3
Increasing water demand is heightening geopolitical tensions. Disputes over water have flared around India’s construction of the Kishenganga and Ratle dams in Kashmir.
Compared with China and India, Pakistan is more heavily reliant on irrigation. That makes agricultural production in Pakistan more vulnerable to diminished flow from the Indus and its tributaries.
Water used to produce major crops in cubic feet per ton
Kinjhar Lake, an Indus-fed reservoir, currently holds enough water for Karachi. But only half the demand gets met: Waste, corruption, and poor infrastructure deprive the city.
RYAN MORRIS, IRENE BERMAN-VAPORIS, Matthew W. Chwastyk, AND Jason Treat, NGM Staff
Sources: William Young, World Bank/GWSP; Mesfin M. Mekonnen, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska; David Shean, University of Washington; FAO AQUASTAT; World Bank; UN Population Division; NASA, GFSAD CROPLANDS; LANDSCAN 2018 HIGH-RESOLUTION POPULATION DATA; garmin
*Water withdrawals based on 2017 or latest available data