(Inter)Nationalist rivers? cooperative development in David Lilienthal's plan for the Indus Basin, 1951

Dan Haines

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Sharing water resources in the Indus Basin, split between India and Pakistan in 1947, helped sour relations between these hostile neighbours until the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. This article explores a radical early intervention into the dispute. David E Lilienthal, an American development expert, published a plan for trans-border cooperative development in 1951. He used a discourse of technocratic internationalism to privilege shared expertise over political difference. His proposal, I argue, tried to align politics in the Indus Basin with a constructed notion of the basin itself as a ‘‘natural’’ entity, contrasted with the political boundaries that divided India from Pakistan. I show how Lilienthal’s appeal to engineers to effect a ‘‘scale jump’’, shifting the waters dispute from a nationalist to an internationalist plane, reinforced an existing reliance in South Asia on technocratic water management. While subsequent negotiations dropped his proposal for cooperative development, his novel use of the idea of engineering to produce the basin as a depoliticised space helped to frame the terms of the debate. The paper is based on material from diplomatic archives in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Original languageEnglish
JournalWater History
Early online date4 Sept 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Indus Waters Treaty
  • International cooperation
  • Technocracy
  • South Asia
  • David E Lilienthal
  • Hydropolitics

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