Indus River – Definition, Length, Map, History, & Facts

The Indus River is a large trans-Himalayan river in South Asia. It is one among the world’s longest rivers, spanning over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres). Its overall drainage area is approximately 450,000 square miles (1,165,000 square kilometres), with 175,000 square miles (453,000 square kilometres) located in the Himalayan peaks and foothills, the Hindu Kush, and the Karakoram Range, and the remainder in Pakistan’s semiarid plains. The river’s yearly flow is approximately 58 cubic miles (243 cubic kilometers)—twice that of the Nile River and three times that of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers combined. The river’s common name is derived from the Tibetan and Sanskrit names Sindhu.

Physical features

The river rises near Lake Mapam in China’s southwestern Tibet Autonomous Region, at a height of around 18,000 feet (5,500 metres). It runs northwest for around 200 miles (320 km), crossing the disputed Kashmir region’s southeastern boundary at an elevation of around 15,000 feet (4,600 metres). A short distance beyond Leh, in the Indian-administered union region of Ladakh, it is joined on the left by its first major tributary, the Zaskar River. The Indus flows in the same direction for 150 miles (240 km) into Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where it is joined on the right bank by its notable tributary, the Shyok River. It is nourished by massive glaciers on the slopes of the Karakoram Range, the Nanga Parbat massif, and the Kohistan highlands below its confluence with the Shyok. The Shyok, Shigar, Gilgit, and other streams transport glacial meltwater into the Indus.

The Shigar River enters the Indus on its right bank in Skardu, Baltistan. The Gilgit River is joined by another right-bank tributary further downstream at Bunji. A little distance downstream, the Astor River, which flows from the eastern slope of Nanga Parbat, joins as a left-bank tributary. The Indus then flows west before turning south and southwest to enter Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, skirting the northern and western sides of the Nanga Parbat massif (26,660 feet [8,126 metres]) in gorges with depths of 15,000 to 17,000 feet (4,600 to 5,200 metres) and widths of 12 to 16 miles (19 to 26 kilometres). Trails cling stubbornly to rocky hillsides overlooking the river at heights of 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 metres).

The Indus emerges from this highland region and travels as a swift mountain stream between the Swat River and the Hazara districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, eventually reaching the Tarbela Dam reservoir. The Kabul River joins the Indus immediately before Attock, where it flows at an elevation of 2,000 feet (600 metres) and is bridged by the first railway and road bridge. Finally, it cuts through the Salt Range near Kalabagh to reach the Punjab Plain.

Hydrology of the Indus River

The main rivers of the Indus River system are snow-fed. Their flow varies dramatically throughout the year: discharge is at its lowest during the winter months (December to February), water levels rise in the spring and early summer (March to June), and floods occur during the rainy season (July to September). Sometimes there are devastating flash floods. The Indus and its tributaries obtain all of their water from the steep upper regions of their catchments. As a result, their flow is highest when they emerge from the foothills, with minimal surface flow added on the plains, where evaporation and seepage significantly reduce flow volume. On the other hand, some water is introduced through seepage following the rainy season. The water level in the Indus’ main stream reaches its lowest point between mid-December and mid-February. After that, the river begins to rise, slowly at first, then more swiftly by the end of March.

The high water level often occurs between mid-July and mid-August. The river then lowers swiftly until early October, when it gradually declines. The upper Indus River conveys approximately 26.5 cubic miles (110 cubic kilometres) of water per year, accounting for slightly less than half of the entire water supply in the Indus River system. The Jhelum and Chenab carry around one-fourth of the system’s entire supply, with the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej accounting for the remaining portion.


From its source to its mouth, the annual precipitation in the Indus region ranges between 5 and 20 inches (125 and 510 mm). Except for the hilly region of Pakistan, the Indus valley is located in the driest part of the subcontinent. In the winter, northwest winds rush through the upper Indus valley, bringing 4 to 8 inches (100 to 200 mm) of rain, which is critical for wheat and barley cultivation. Snowfall is the most common kind of precipitation in the upper Indus’ mountainous region. Melting snows and glaciers in the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Himalayan peaks contribute a significant portion of the Indus’ water. The monsoon rains (July to September) provide the remaining flow. The climate of the Indus valley varies from the dry semidesert regions of Sindh and Punjab provinces to the harsh high mountain climates of Kohistan, Hunza, Gilgit, Ladakh, and western Tibet. In the hilly north, January temperatures average below freezing, while July midday highs in Sindh and Punjab provinces average about 100 °F (38 °C). Jacobabad, one of the hottest places on Earth, is located west of the Indus River in northern Sindh and frequently has summer high temperatures of 120 °F (49 °C).

Plant and animal life

In the Indus valley, climate and vegetation are closely related. Desert conditions predominate 10 to 25 miles (15 to 40 kilometres) from the river in Sindh province on the lower Indus, with sand and sparse grass cover dominating the landscape. Irrigation by floods or canals allows for some farming, although heavy irrigation frequently causes soil salinity. Much of the natural vegetation in northern Sindh and Punjab province has been devastated by overgrazing and timber harvesting for fuel. Furthermore, chronic human intervention with natural drainage and deforestation in the Himalayan foothills has led to a decline in groundwater levels and an additional loss of flora. The middle Indus valley appears to have been more wooded in ancient and earlier historic periods, as evidenced by stories of Alexander the Great’s Indian conquests (c. 325 BCE) and records of Mughal hunts (in the 16th century and beyond).

Even today, the Indus Plain along the river is covered in thorn woods of open acacia and shrub, as well as undergrowth of poppies, vetch, thistles, and chickweed. Tall grassy plains surround the river, while streams and canals are often flanked by tamarisk trees and dense vegetation. Unfortunately, there are no natural forests. Reforestation initiatives have been successful in some portions of Punjab’s Thal region, located east of the Indus. The farmed areas near the river are heavily forested, while the strip beneath the mountains resembles parks. The mountains along the upper Indus are extensively covered with conifers.

People of the Indus River

People living in the higher reaches of the Indus, such as Tibetans, Ladakhis, and Baltis, have more in common with Central Asia than with South Asia. They speak Tibetan and practise Buddhism, while the Balti have embraced Islam. Pastoralism is vital to the local economy. In the main Himalayan peaks, areas drained by the headwaters of major Indus tributaries form a transitional zone where Tibetan cultural traits coexist with those of the Indian pahari (hill) region.

In other parts of the Indus valley, people speak Indo-European languages and are Muslims, reflecting centuries of western intrusions into the Indian subcontinent. The rocky mountains of western Kashmir are home to Dardic-speaking communities (Kafir, Kohistanis, Shinas, and Kashmiri Gujar), whose languages, like most in the region, are Indo-European in origin. The long-lived Burusho of the Hunza River valley speak a language (Burushaski) that is unrelated to any other. These communities combine herding and irrigation-based farming.

Pashtuns, who speak Pashto and are closely linked to Afghanistan’s tribes, predominate in northwest Pakistan. The Yusufzai are the largest of the Pashtun tribes, with the Afridi, Muhmand, Khattak, and Wazir. In the hilly tribal highlands of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the fiercely independent Pashtuns maintain their ancient tribal structure and political organisation.

The lower Indus valley is populated by agricultural people who speak Sindhi and kindred dialects. Many cultural elements in the region appear to be centuries old, and the Sindhis take pleasure in their unique identity. Karachi, located in Sindh, is largely an Urdu-speaking metropolis settled by Punjabis and muhājir, Indian immigrants who arrived in Pakistan after the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.


Irrigation of the Indus River

Irrigation from the Indus has been the foundation for successful agriculture from time immemorial. Modern irrigation engineering began around 1850, and during the British administration, massive canal systems were built. In many cases, historic canals and inundation channels in Sindh and Punjab were restored and modernised. As a result, the world’s largest canal irrigation system was established. When British India was partitioned in 1947, the international boundary between India and what was then West Pakistan divided the irrigation system of the Bari Doab and Sutlej Valley Project, which had been intended as a single scheme, into two portions. The leadership fell to India, but the canals passed through Pakistan. This caused a disturbance in the water supply in various areas of Pakistan. The resulting conflict, which lasted several years, was resolved through World Bank mediation by a pact signed by Pakistan and India in 1960 known as the Indus Waters pact. According to the agreement, Pakistan receives the flow of the three western rivers of the Indus basin—the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab (except for a small amount used in Jammu and Kashmir union territory), while India receives the flow of the three eastern rivers—the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej.

The second massive project is the Tarbela Dam on the Indus River, 50 miles (80 kilometres) northwest of Rawalpindi. The earth- and rock-filled dam is 9,000 feet (2,700 metres) long and 470 feet (143 metres) high, with a reservoir that is 50 miles (80 kilometres) long. The dam’s producing capacity is around three times that of the Mangla Dam, and its overall potential is far greater.

A third important construction, the Ghazi Barotha hydroelectric plant, was built in 2004 and is located beneath Tarbela. The Indus is partially diverted there to a powerhouse that can produce 1,450 megawatts.


Until approximately 1880, the Indus and other Punjab rivers provided some navigation, but the introduction of railways and the growth of irrigation works have removed everything save tiny craft that travel the lower Indus in Sindh. There are fishing boats on the lower Indus, and the upper portions of rivers and canals above the first railway crossing are being utilised to transport lumber down from Kashmir’s slopes.

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