Indus River

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geography of Asia

The position of the Sindhu River in Iron Age Vedic India.
The position of the Sindhu River in Iron Age Vedic India.

The Indus ( Urdu: دریائے سندھ;Sanskrit: सिंधु Sindhu; Sindhi: سنڌو Sindh; Hindi: सिन्धु नदी; Tibetan: Sengge Chu ("Lion River"); Persian: Hindu or Mehran (an older name); Greek: Sinthos; Pashto: Abaseen ("The Father of Rivers"); Chinese: Shendu) is the longest and most important river in Pakistan. Originating in the Tibetan plateau in the vicinity of Lake Mansarovar, the river runs a course through Jammu and Kashmir in both Indian Kashmir and Northern Areas, flowing through the North in a southernly direction along the entire length of country, to merge into the Arabian Sea near the city of Pakistan's national city Karachi. The total length of the river is 3200 km (1988 miles). The river has a total drainage area exceeding 450,000 square miles. The river's estimated annual flow stands at around 207 cubic kilometres. Beginning at the heights of the world with glaciers, the river feeds the ecosystem of temperate forests, plains and arid countryside. Together with the rivers Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, Jhelum, Beas and the extinct Sarasvati River, the Indus forms the Sapta Sindhu ("Seven Rivers") delta in the Sindh province of Pakistan. It has 20 major tributaries.

The Indus provides the key water resources for the economy of Pakistan - especially the breadbasket of Punjab province, which accounts for most of the nation's agricultural production, and Sindh. It also supports many heavy industries and provides the main supply of potable water in Pakistan.

Satellite image of the Indus River basin.
Satellite image of the Indus River basin.

The ultimate source of the Indus is in Tibet; it begins at the confluence of the Sengge and Gar rivers that drain the Nganglong Kangri and Gangdise Shan mountain ranges. The Indus then flows northwest through Ladakh- Baltistan into Gilgit, just south of the Karakoram range. The Shyok, Shigar and Gilgit streams carry glacieral waters into the main river. It gradually bends to the south, coming out of the hills between Peshawar and Rawalpindi. The Indus passes gigantic gorges (15,000-17,000 feet) near the Nanga Parbat massif It swiftly flows across Hazara, and is dammed at the Tarbela Reservoir. The Kabul River joins it near Attock. The remainder of its route to the sea is in plains of the Punjab and Sind, and the river becomes slow-flowing and highly braided. It is joined by Panjnad River at Mithankot. Beyond this confluence, the river, at one time, was named as Satnad River (sat = seven, nadi = river) as the river was now carrying the waters of Kabul River, Indus River and the five Punjab rivers. Passing by Hyderabad, it ends in a large delta to the east of Karachi.

The Indus is, by volume, the largest exotic river (one that mainly flows through a country from which it receives no water) in the world. It is one of the few rivers in the world that exhibit a tidal bore. The Indus system is largely fed by the snows and glaciers of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges of Tibet, Kashmir and Northern Areas of Pakistan. The flow of the river is also determined by the seasons - it diminishes greatly in the winter, while flooding its banks in the monsoon months from July to September. There is also evidence of a steady shift in the course of the river since prehistoric times - it deviated westwards from flowing into the Rann of Kutch. It is the Official and National River of Pakistan in Urdu as Qaumi Daryaa.


Archaeological sites in the Indus Valley.
Archaeological sites in the Indus Valley.

Paleolithic sites have been discovered in Pothohar, with the stone tools of the Soan Culture. In ancient Gandhara, evidence of cave dwellers dated 15,000 years ago has been discovered at Mardan.

The major cities of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, date back to around 3300 BC, and represent some of the largest human habitations of the ancient world. The IVC was extended from Balochistan to Gujarat, with an upward reach to the Punjab from east of River Jhelum to Rupar on the upper Sutlej. The coast settlements extended from Sutkagan Dor at Iranian border to Lothal in Gujarat. There is an Indus site on the Oxus river at Shortughai in northern Afghanistan (Kenoyer 1998:96), and the Indus site Alamgirpur at the Hindon river is located only 28 km from Delhi (S.P. Gupta 1995:183). To date, over 1,052 cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Ghaggar-Hakra River and its tributaries. Among the settlements were the major urban centers of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, as well as Lothal, Dholavira, Ganeriwala, and Rakhigarhi. Only 90 to 96 of the over 800 known Indus Valley sites have been discovered on the Indus and its tributaries. The Sutlej, now a tributary of the Indus, in Harappan times flowed into the Ghaggar-Hakra River, in the watershed of which were more Harappan sites than along the Indus (S.P. Gupta 1995: 183).

Settlements of Gandhara grave culture of the early Indo-Aryans flourished in Gandhara from 1700 to 600 BCE, when Mohenjo Daro and Harappa had already been abandoned. The name Indus is a Latinization of Hindu, in turn the Iranian variant of Sindhu, the name of the Indus in the Rigveda. Sanskrit sindhu generically means "river, stream", probably from a root sidh "to go, move"; sindhu is attested 176 times in the Rigveda, 95 times in the plural, more often used in the generic meaning. Already in the Rigveda, notably in the later hymns, the meaning of the word is narrowed to refer to the Indus river in particular, for example in the list of rivers of the Nadistuti sukta. This resulted in the anomaly of a river with masculine gender: all other Rigvedic rivers are female, not just grammatically, being imagined as goddesses and compared to cows and mares yielding milk and butter.

The Indus has formed a natural boundary between the Indian hinterland and its frontier with Afghanistan and Iran. It has been crossed by the armies of Alexander the Great - Greek forces retreated along the southern course of the river at the end of the Indian campaign. The Indus plains have also been under the domination of the Persian empire and the Kushan empire. The Muslim armies of Muhammad bin Qasim, Mahmud of Ghazni and Babur also crossed the river to strike into the inner regions of Gujarat, Punjab and Rajputana.



Confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers.
Confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers.
  • Beas
  • Kabul
  • Ravi
  • Wakha
  • Shingo
  • Sutlej
  • Astor
  • Gilgit
  • Ghizar
  • Hunza
  • Gumal
  • Zhob
  • Zanskar
  • Kunar
  • Gar
  • Shyok
  • Shigar
  • Chenab
  • Jhelum morning
  • Suru Chu
  • Swaan stream


Indus River Delta
Indus River Delta

The Indus River Delta occurs where the Indus River flows into the Arabian Sea in Pakistan. The delta covers an area of about 16,000 square miles (41,440 km²), and is approximately 130 miles across where it meets the sea. Unlike many other deltas, the Indus River Delta consists of clay and other infertile soils, and is very swampy. The delta receives between 10 and 20 inches of rainfall in a normal year.

Pakistan's fifth largest city, Hyderabad, lies about 130 miles north of the mouths of the Indus. Towns are found throughout the delta, but there are no large cities on the delta south of Hyderabad. Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, lies west of the delta on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Average temperatures for the delta region in July range from 70 - 85 °F, and 50 - 70 °F in January. The Indus River Delta is an important region for migrating water birds, and is an area rich in freshwater fauna. Fish found in the delta include the Hilsa, Indus baril, Indus garua (a catfish), and the giant snakehead.


The Indus delta is one of the driest in the Indian subcontinent, lying just to the west of the Thar Desert of Rajasthan - and rainfall is extraordinarily erratic owing to the passage of cyclones from the Arabian Sea. The Punjab plains, however, receive considerable rainfall from the summer monsoon: at Abbottabad the average annual rainfall is around 1,200mm (47 inches) and at Murree around 1,700mm (67 inches) with as much as 730mm (28 inches) in July and August alone. The upper basin of the Indus receives 4-8 inches of rainfall (higher in the west) in the winter months owing to northwestern winds. Higher elevations in Kashmir and the Northern Areas receives a large amount of precipitation in the form of snow, but the lower valleys are extremely dry and quite warm in the summer. Annual temperatures fall below freezing in the northern mountainous regions in the winter, while exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the plains of Punjab and Sindh in the summer. Jacobabad, which is one of the hottest spots in the world, lies to the west of the river in Sindh.


Accounts of the Indus valley from the times of Alexander's campaign indicate a healthy forest cover in the region, which has now considerably receded. The Mughal Emperor Babar writes of encountering rhinoceroses along its bank in his memoirs (the BaberNameh). Extensive deforestation and human interference in the ecology of the Shivalik Hills has led to a marked deterioration in vegetation and growing conditions. The Indus valley regions are arid with poor vegetation. Agriculture is sustained largely due to irrigation works.

The Blind Indus River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor) is a sub-species of Dolphins found only in the Indus River. It formerly also occurred in the tributaries of the Indus river. Palla fish ( Hilsa ilisha) of the river is a delicacy for people living along the river. The population of fishes in the river is moderate, with Sukkur, Thatta and Kotri being the major fishing centres - all in the lower Sindh course. But damming and irrigation has made fish farming an important economic activity. Located southeast of Karachi, the large delta has been recognised by conservationists as one of the world's most important ecological regions. Here the river distributes into many marshes, streams and creeks and meets the sea at shallow levels. Here marine fishes are found in abundance, including pomfret and prawns.


The Indus is the most important supplier of water resources to the Punjab and Sindh plains - it forms the backbone of agriculture and food production in Pakistan. The river is especially critical as rainfall is meagre in the lower Indus valley. Irrigation canals were first built by the peoples of the Indus valley civilization, and later by the engineers of the Kushan empire and the Mughal empire. Modern irrigation was introduced by the British East India Company in 1850 - the construction of modern canals accompanied with the restoration of old canals. The British supervised the construction of one of the most complex irrigation networks in the world. The Guddu Barrage is 4,450 feet long - irrigating Sukkur, Jacobabad, Larkana and Kalat. The Sukkur Barrage serves over five million acres (20,000 km²).

After partition, the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority undertook the construction of the Chashma-Jhelum link canal - linking the waters of the Indus and Jhelum rivers - extending water supplies to the regions of Bahawalpur and Multan. Pakistan also constructed the Tarbela Dam near Rawalpindi - standing 9,000 feet long and 470 feet high, with a 50 mile-long reservoir. The Kotri Barrage near Hyderabad is 3,000 feet long and provides additional supplies for Karachi. The Taunsa Barrage near Dera Ghazi Khan produces 100,000 kilowatts of electricity. The extensive linking of tributaries with the Indus has helped spread water resources to the valley of Peshawar, the Northwest Frontier Province. The extensive irrigation and dam projects provide the basis for Pakistan's large production of crops such as cotton, sugarcane and wheat. The dams also generate electricity for heavy industries and urban centres.


The Indus River near Skardu, Pakistan
The Indus River near Skardu, Pakistan

The inhabitants of the regions through whom the Indus river passes and forms a major natural feature and resource are diverse in ethnicity, religion, national and linguistic backgrounds. On the northern course of the river in Kashmir live the Buddhist people of Ladakh, of Tibetan stock, with Kashmiris who practise both Islam and Hinduism. As it descends into Northern Areas of Pakistan, the Indus river forms a distinctive boundary of ethnicity and cultures - upon the western banks the population is largely Pashtun, Balochi, and of other Afghan stock, with close cultural, economic and ethnic ties to Iran and Afghanistan. The eastern banks are largely populated with peoples of the Punjabi stock, with smaller populations of Sindhis and people from regions in modern India. In northern Punjab and the NWFP, Pathan peoples and ethnic Pashtun tribes live alongside Punjabi peoples. In the southern portion of the Punjab province, the Serakai peoples speak a distinctive tongue and practise distinctive traditions. In the province of Sindh, peoples of Sindhi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking Mohajir backgrounds form the local populations. Upon the western banks of the river live the Balochi and Pashtun peoples of Balochistan.

Modern issues

A flooded Indus river inundates the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway.
A flooded Indus river inundates the Srinagar- Kargil- Leh highway.

Due to its location and vast water resources, Indus is a strategically vital resource for Pakistan's economy and society. The river is also sacred for Hindus in both India and Pakistan, and India's control of the river in its Kashmir course has created conflict for the use of the river's resources between the two nations.

Indus Waters treaty

After the partition of India in 1947, the use of the waters of the Indus and its five eastern tributaries became a major dispute between India and Pakistan. The irrigation canals of the Sutlej valley and the Bari Doab were split - with the canals lying primarily in Pakistan and the headwork dams in India - disrupting supply in some parts of Pakistan. The concern over India building large dams over various Punjab rivers that could undercut the supply flowing to Pakistan, as well as the possibility that India could divert rivers in the time of war, caused political consternation in Pakistan. Holding diplomatic talks brokered by the World Bank, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. The treaty gave India the control of the three easternmost rivers of the Punjab, Sutlej, Beas and the Ravi, while Pakistan gained control of the three western rivers, Jhelum, Chenab and the Indus. India retained the right to use of the western rivers for non irrigation projects. (See discussion regarding a recent dispute about a hydroelectric project on the Chenab (not Indus) known as the Baghlighar project).


Hindu pilgrimage to holy sites alongside the river has been a source of conflict between the nations. Pakistan does generally allow Indian citizens to visit the country for religious purposes, However, owing to the volatile nature of bilateral relations, most pilgrimage and religious ceremonies are performed by Hindus in Kashmir.


There are concerns that extensive deforestation, industrial pollution and global warming are affecting the vegetation and wildlife of the Indus delta, while affecting agricultural production as well. There are also concerns that the Indus river may be shifting its course westwards - although the progression spans centuries. On numerous occasions, Water-clogging owing to poor maintenance of canals has affected agricultural production and vegetation. In addition, extreme heat has caused water to evaporate leaving salt deposits that render lands useless for cultivation.

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