The main rivers of Pakistan are the Indus (2,749 kilometers within Pakistan) and its tributaries: the Chenab (730.6 kilometers), Ravi (680.6 kilometers), Jhelum (611.3 kilometers), and Sutlej (530.6 kilometers). The navigable portions of these rivers are generally small and unconnected as a result of seasonal variations in water flows and the presence of substantial irrigation structures. The short Panjnad River, about 121 kilometers (75 miles) long, is actually the combined input of the "five rivers of the Punjab": the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

All of Pakistan's major rivers — the Kabul, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej — flow into the Indus. The upper Indus Basin includes Punjab; the lower Indus Basin begins at the Panjnad River (the confluence of the eastern tributaries of the Indus) and extends south to the coast. In Punjab (meaning the "land of five waters") are the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej rivers. The Sutlej, however, is mostly on the Indian side of the border.

The principal river of Balochistan is the Zhob, running along the southern slopes of the Toba Kakar Range and north into the Gumal River. In southern Balochistan, several minor rivers flow into the Arabian Sea; these include the Dasht, Mashkai, Nal, and Porali. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, 2003]

Irrigation, Dams and the Rivers of Southern Pakistan

Less than a one-fifth of Pakistan's land area has the potential for intensive agricultural use. Nearly all of the arable land is actively cultivated, but outputs are low by world standards. Cultivation is sparse in the northern mountains, the southern deserts, and the western plateaus, but the Indus River basin in Punjab and northern Sindh has fertile soil that enables Pakistan to feed its population under usual climatic conditions. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the southern part of the province of Punjab, the British attempted to harness the irrigation power of the water over 100 years ago when they established what came to be known as the Canal Colonies. The irrigation project, which facilitated the emergence of intensive cultivation despite arid conditions, resulted in important social and political transformations. *

Pakistan has two great river dams: the Tarbela Dam on the Indus, near the early Buddhist site at Taxila, and the Mangla Dam on the Jhelum, where Punjab borders Azad Kashmir. The Warsak Dam on the Kabul River near Peshawar is smaller. These dams, along with a series of headworks and barrages built by the British and expanded since independence, are of vital importance to the national economy and played an important role in calming the raging floodwaters of 1992, which devastated large areas in the northern highlands and the Punjab plains.*

According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography”: Dams on the Indus River, built for hydropower or agricultural water diversion, have been extremely controversial. The provincial governments of Sindh and Balochistan believe that Punjab Province is diverting too much water from the Indus. Intensive irrigation has led to a crisis of water-logging and salinity throughout the farmlands of the Indus Basin. In this geological syndrome, salty water seeps from canals into surrounding soil, which the salt renders useless for farming as the water evaporates.” [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, 2003]

Deserts and Arid Regions of Southeastern Pakistan

More than two-thirds of Pakistan is arid or semi-arid. In such places rivers, streams, and lakes exist only seasonally. The Thar Desert and Lower Indus Valley, located in the southernmost province of Sindh, consists largely of arid valleys and rocky hills that extend into neighboring India. Farming is only possible in the irrigated areas nearest to the Indus River..

The Thal Desert is south of the Salt Range, between the Indus and Jhelum Rivers. The Thar Desert (Cholistan Desert) lies south of the Sutlej River along the Pakistan-India border. Both these Pakistani desert regions are extensions of India's Thar Desert. The arid south ends at the rugged Makran coast and rises to the east into a series of rock-strewn ranges, the Kirthar and the Sulaiman. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, 2003]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: East of the Balochistan “plateau region are extensive alluvial plains, through which flow the Indus and its tributaries. The region, closely coinciding with Sindh and Punjab provinces, is hot and dry and is occupied in its eastern borders by the Thar Desert. Extensive irrigation facilities, fed by the waters of the Indus system, make the Indus basin the agricultural heartland of Pakistan. A variety of crops (especially wheat, rice, and cotton) are raised there. Advances in agricultural engineering have countered the salinity problems involved in farming the Indus delta. The irrigated portions of the plain are densely populated, being the site of many of Pakistan's principal cities, including Lahore, Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur), Hyderabad, and Multan. Karachi, the nation's chief port, is located west of the irrigated land at a site accessible to oceangoing vessels. The higher parts of the plain, in the north, as in the vicinity of Lahore, have a more humid subtropical climate. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

There is also a dry region in the northern Chilas-Gilgit area. In addition to long-standing deserts, man-influenced desertification and salinization has turned areas across Pakistan into deserts that had not been deserts before. This is true in some places that have been overly irrigated. Deforestation, erosion of topsoil, water shortages have all contributed to desertification. By some estimates one-third of the country considered at risk.

Balochistan Plateau

The Balochistan Plateau, at an elevation of 914 to 1,219 meters (3,000 to 4,000 feet), is an arid tableland of approximately 350,945 square kilometers (135,000 square miles). It is defined and enclosed by the western mountain ranges along the Afghan border and by those extending southwards from Quetta. The plateau has interior drainage and features a number of dry lake beds. Large natural gas reserves lie beneath it

Covering nearly one-half of Pakistan and roughly coinciding with Balochistan Province, the Balochistan Plateau is largely desert, consisting of arid plains and ridges. with eroded wastelands, sand dunes, and sandstorms. There are relatively wetter conditions in its northern area. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: Numerous low mountain ranges rise from the plateau, and the Hingol and Dasht rivers are among the largest streams. Large portions of the region are unfit for agriculture, and although some cotton is raised, nomadic sheep grazing is the principal activity. Coal, chromite, and natural gas are found in this area, and fishing and salt trading are carried on along the rugged Makran coast. Quetta, the chief city, is an important railroad center on the line between Afghanistan and the Indus valley. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Among the mountain ranges that surround the the Balochistan plateau are Central Brahui Range, which extends for 282 kilometers (175 miles) south of Quetta and then divides into the Kjrthar Range that extends southeast, and the Makran Range that reaches to the west as far as the Iranian border. Southeast from Quetta, the Bugti Hills merge into the Sulaiman Range, separating the country's east and west. The highest peaks here are 1,828 to 2,133 meters (6,000 to 7,000 feet) high.

Indus River

Indus River is Pakistan's largest and most important river. Flowing southward from the Himalayan-Karakorum range to the Indian Ocean, it is 3,600 kilometers (1,900 miles) long and drains an area of 971,245 square kilometers (375,000 square miles). The broad valleys of the Indus and its tributaries defines Pakistan’s heartland. South Asia's greatest civilization was founded along its banks and much of Pakistan's population relies on food irrigated by its waters.

The Indus is Pakistan’s lifeline. Flowing the length of the country , it is mainly fed by the combined waters of three of the five rivers of Punjab—the Chenab, Jhelum, and Ravi. The waters of the other two rivers, the Beas and the Sutlej, are largely withdrawn for irrigation in India. Along the Indus and its tributaries are found most of Pakistan's population, its chief agricultural areas, and its major hydroelectric power stations..

The name Indus comes from the Sanskrit word sindhu, meaning ocean, from which also come the words Sindh, Hindu, and India. The Indus gave India its name. In the A.D. first century, Roman historian Pliny used the name. In Pakistan the Indus sometimes called the Lion River.

The Indus is at its lowest in February, when water in the Himalayas and Karakorums is locked up in snow and ice. The river is at its highest in June when it is swollen from snow, ice and glacier melting from these ranges. It is not as influenced by the June-October monsoon rains as other rivers but is influenced some.

The Indus is a brilliant blue green color along much of its length. When the brown muddy Kabul River merges into it, the two colors are clearly visible as two distinct streams. After that it is often muddy brown in color. The Indus carries great amounts of silt, sand and gravel, which is deposited on its bottom, causing the river to rise. The Indus is prone to flooding and has unleashed some catastrophic floods.. Embankments and dams have largely tamed the floods.

Route and Catchment of the Indus River

The source of the Indus River is in in southwestern Tibet only about 160 kilometers west of the source of the Sutlej River, which joins the Indus in Punjab, and the Brahmaputra, which runs eastward before turning southwest and flowing through Bangladesh. Fed by streams comprised of melted snow and glaciers, it follows the disputed Pakistani-Indian border through Ladakh and Kashmir. After it enters Pakistan it passes flows through spectacular gorges, near some of the highest mountains in the world, including K2 and Nanga Parbat, and follows a section of the Karakorum Highway.

The Indus flows the Karakoram range, which is home to eight of the world's highest peaks, including the breathtaking K2. It separates 8,126 meter (26,660 foot) Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain, from the rest of the Karakorams. The giant glaciers of the Karakorams inch down the mountain slopes and deposit their melt water in the Indus and its tributaries and filling deep gorges with raging torrents of water that are crossed in some places by dizzying wire and rope foot bridges with wooden planks to step on. This is also the home of the 'Mouth of the Lion' spring. from where the Indus flows down, cutting its way through barren, forbidding terrain. Near Islamabad, the Indus River rushes through steep Attock Gorge. [Source: Ministry of Culture, Pakistan ]

After crossing the Indian-administered portion of Jammu and Kashmir, the Indus enters Pakistan and flows southwest for 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the Arabian Sea. At Attock, the Indus receives the waters of the Kabul River from the west. After being joined by the Gumal River, the Indus continues south to Mithanhot, where it is joined by its major tributary, the Panjnad.

After flowing out of the mountains, the Indus River joins its main tributaries—the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi and Sutlej—and enters the Punjab, which means "five rivers." By the time the river reaches the rich alluvial plain of the Punjab it has matured.In the Punjab, the Indus is harnesses to irrigate the breadbasket of Pakistan. Huge irrigation project harness the waters of the Indus to grow rice, grain and vegetables. The Punjab is the only part of Pakistan you could is say is really green.

Leaving the Punjab, the Indus enters the Sindh, flowing slower and slower as it meanders and braids Sindh before ending in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea near the port of Karachi. On its final leg to the Arabian Sea the Indus River passes through the Sind, near the ancient Indus Valley cites. This area is also heavily irrigated. The Indus empties into the Arabian Sea via a 200-kilometer (130-mile) -wide delta.

The catchment area of the Indus is estimated at almost 1 million square kilometers,and all of Pakistan's major rivers — the Kabul, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej — flow into it. The Indus River basin is a large, fertile alluvial plain formed by silt from the Indus. This area has been inhabited by agricultural civilizations for at least 5,000 years. The upper Indus Basin includes Punjab; the lower Indus Basin begins at the Panjnad River (the confluence of the eastern tributaries of the Indus) and extends south to the coast. In Punjab (meaning the "land of five waters") are the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej rivers. The Sutlej, however, is mostly on the Indian side of the border. In the southern part of the province of Punjab, the British attempted to harness the irrigation power of the water over 100 years ago when they established what came to be known as the Canal Colonies. The irrigation project, which facilitated the emergence of intensive cultivation despite arid conditions, resulted in important social and political transformations.*

Dams on the Indus River

The Indus is of great value to both Pakistan and India. A 1960 water agreement between the two countries gives Pakistan water from the west tributaries (the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) while India gets water from the eastern tributaries (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej). Both countries have built massive dams to harness the river for irrigation water and hydroelectric power.

The Indus River is an irrigation lifeline for much of Pakistan. The river and its tributaries support the largest system of irrigation canals in the world. These canals flow through areas, namely the Punjab, where the soil is fertile but the rain is often unpredictable.

The chief dams, or barrages, are: 1) the Sukkur Barrage, headworks of the largest canal-irrigation system in the world; 2) the Jinnah Barrage, upstream from the Sukkur Barrage, irrigating the Thaka reclamation area; and 3) the Lower Sindh project at Kotri down stream. Irrigated upstream, areas are called “doabs”.

The Tarbela dam is the largest dam on the Indus River. It was planned in the 1960s and completed in 1976. A report in 2000 by the World Commission on Dams stated: the ecological impacts of the dam were not considered at the inception state as the international agencies involved in water resources development had not realized the need at the time.”

Ecological Problems on the Indus River

So many canals and dams have been built on the Indus and it tributaries in the Punjab and Sindh that the Indus River carries no fresh water for 130 kilometers (80 miles) before it reaches the sea. Instead it is filled with salt water that flows in from the Arabian Sea. Millions of farmers have fallen into poverty because there is not enough water for their crops. Even drinking water is in short supply. Once thriving cattle-rasing and agricultural towns have become ghost towns.

The broad fertile delta is facing ecological collapse. More than 1.2 million acres of farmland has been covered by advancing seawater. Millions of acres have been damaged by salt deposits from advancing and retained water or simply dried up. Some farms have dried out so completely even obtaining drinking water is a problem. Thousands of river fishermen have lost their way of making a living. Mangrove swamps are dying and large areas of land have been turned into salty deserts. This is damaging the coastal ecosystems and harming spawning areas for shrimp and fish.

The Punjab which has received most of the benefits from the dams but few of its problems wants new large scale dam and canal projects. This is causing friction between the Punjab and Sindh provinces, which has suffered many of problems from the development of the Indus .

Lakes, Wetlands and Coastal Area of Pakistan

According to Geo-Data: “In Pakistan's southeast is Manchhar Lake. It was once a large body of fresh water (roughly 100 sq mi / 259 sq kilometers) and a major habitat for birds and fish, but pollution and water diversion have shrunk the lake dramatically and made its waters increasingly saline. Other lakes in the lower Indus region face extinction, including Kerjhar Lake and Hammal Lake. Kinjhar (Kalri) Lake, Haleji Lake, and Drigh Lake are wildlife sanctuaries in this region. Further north the Khabbaki, Uchali and Jahlar Lakes complex is a Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a wintering area for numerous bird species. The far northern basin known as Snow Lake is a massive snowbed comprising the Sim Gang glacier and a frozen glacial lake with ice more than 15 kilometers (nine miles) thick. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Pakistan has sixteen areas designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Most are in the southern half of the country, including the Indus Dolphin Reserve, which holds the last 500 of the blind dolphin species; the Jiwani Coastal Wetland, a mangrove forest belt which stretches to Iran; and the Miani Hor, a shallow bay with mud flats and mangrove forests. Waste disposal, commercial fishing, oil drilling, and pollution pose threats to these southern wetlands. In other regions, Ramsar sites include the Thanedar Wala, a floodplain on the Kurram River in the northwest, and the Taunsa and Chashma Barrages, reservoirs in Punjab that are major bird habitats. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

The coastline of Pakistan is situated on the the Arabian Sea of the northern Indian Ocean. On the western coast, Balochistan's Ormara Turtle Beaches, about 10 kilometers) (six miles) long, are a habitat for endangered sea turtles; and mud volcanoes sputter along the shore. The central coast is indented by Sonmiani Bay. The coast has few settlements, except for Pakistan's largest city, the port of Karachi. The city's beaches are badly polluted by oil spills, sewage, and industrial toxic waste, which pours directly into the ocean. To the southeast of Karachi, the Indus River delta is approximately 130 mi (210 kilometers) wide. Pakistan's only major offshore island is Astola (Haft Talar), about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Balochistan in the Arabian Sea, with an area of 50 square kilometers (19 square miles). Astola is a turtle nesting area and a bird and reptile habitat.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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