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Erum Sattar

Erum Khalid Sattar

S.J.D. 2017

Teaching Assistant – Legal Research, Writing & Analysis

Visiting Fellow, Islamic Legal Studies Program – Law and Social Change

esattar at and esattar at


Water as Power: The Law and Politics of Federalism in the Indus Basin

In 2015, over 300 people succumbed to the ravages of long-term poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in Tharparkar, Sindh. Ultimately, though, it was the famine that resulted from a failure of the monsoon rains that tipped them over the edge. In the following summer an Al Jazeera reporter captured a telling snapshot of daily life: “It is 9 am on a hot, windy summer’s day in Mithrio Soomro village when local women gather around a well to collect water. Aqeela, who says she has 10 to 12 children, is pulling the thick, rough rope tied to the well along with a few other women – a job typically assigned to a donkey.”

In my thesis I seek to help explain the legal framework of injustice arising from the mismanagement of water in a federated system that can lead to the kind of tragic individual and social event as well as to the ignominies of countless daily tragedies, of lost lives and potential, that for the most part, go unseen. For perspective if one is needed, the average annual surface flow of the Indus is ten times as much as the flow of the Colorado River. I want to help shift our understanding of this everyday injustice as just the way things are, naturally, into a ‘normality’ worth fighting, worth contesting with the best of our intellectual and moral tools.

To do this, I take several pieces of the complex puzzle that creates this structure and analyze how they fit together in a way that creates this structure of legal injustice. I take government and donor documents seriously, at their word, as a way to help explain what the actual actors engaged in the system think and the assumptions under which they act. I explain the obscure interlinked features of legal and political agreements to manage water as a natural resource, the opaque agencies responsible for operating them in a federal system, the specialized role of international experts as they offer advice and financing to advance their goals, the competing visions embodied in the existing legal architecture of property rights in water, itself a colonial legacy, and I suggest a potential path for the reconceptualization of these legal structures and related legal, social, and economic institutions.

Engaging in a deep and sustained way with administrative bureaucracies, whether government or international development, can help us tackle the vastness of the intellectual, imaginative and every-day tasks before us. Too many are too destitute for us to leave the big problems unstudied.

Fields of Research and Supervisors

Defense Committee:

  • Professor Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
  • Professor James Salzman, Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law, UCLA School of Law and Bren School of the Environment at UC Santa Barbara
  • Professor Amartya Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, Harvard University

Additional Research Interests

  • Comparative Water Law and Policy
  • Property and Development
  • Environmental and Natural Resources Law
  • Federalism
  • Administrative Law and Agencies
  • International Law and Treaties


  • Harvard Law School, S.J.D. 2017
  • Harvard Law School, LL.M. Program, 2009-2010 (requirements fulfilled, degree waived)
  • Queen Mary University of London, LL.M. 2008
  • University of London, LL.B. 2007

Academic Appointments and Fellowships

  • Harvard Law School, 2017-2018, Graduate Program Fellow, Teaching Assistant, Legal Research, Writing & Analysis
  • Harvard Law School, 2017-Present, Visiting Fellow, Islamic Legal Studies Program – Law and Social Change

Representative Publications

Last Updated: August 14, 2017