Granting Rivers Legal Entity Status Signals Environmental Action Not Legislative Lunacy

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New Zealand and India have this month become the first countries to grant living entity status to rivers.

As a result, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, and the Ganges (Ganga) and Yamuna Rivers in India now possess the same legal rights as a person.

New Zealand was the first to pass this somewhat bizarre legislation bringing a 160 year old litigation withthe Mauri Whanganui Iwi tribe to an end. The following week, India did the same as the result of litigation aiming to combat state inaction in the clear up of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, considered sacred to over a billion Hindus in India.

The rivers are now ‘legal/juristic persons’, as opposed to ‘natural persons’ , which refers to individual human beings. They were appointed representatives to defend their interests, and to ensure that they are not misused, abused or misappropriated. The Whanganui River is to be represented by two officials, one from the Whanganui Iwi tribe and one from the Crown, while the Director of the Namami Gange programme (an integrated conservation mission), the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary, and the Advocate-General of Uttarakhand have been appointed to represent the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.

The Indian judges said in their ruling:

All the Hindus have deep ‘astha’ in the Ganga and the Yamuna and they collectively connect with these rivers. The rivers are central to the existence of half of the Indian population and their health and well-being. They have provided both physical and spiritual sustenance to all of us from time immemorial.

Similarly, MP Adrian Rurawhe stated that the wellbeing of the Whanganui River was directly linked to the wellbeing of the people, which is embodied in their well-known saying ‘I am the river and the river is me’.

In India this move is widely regarded as a welcome step. As the country has developed its industry and economy its rivers have suffered, becoming increasingly polluted by city sewage, farming pesticides and industrial waste in spite of existing laws against pollution. Levels of pollution are so severe in some places that the Yamuna River is no longer able to sustain fish or other aquatic life.

While activists recognise that simply making the rivers a legal entity will not clean up the river and end pollution, the implications of the change in legal status are promising. Now, cases against polluters can be filed directly under the rivers’ names, rather than the case being brought forward by those falling victim to the pollution. It also encourages action and a level of accountability for the failure of clean-up efforts, with an 8 week deadline to constitute a Ganga Management Board.

In New Zealand, the decision has been met with a degree of scepticism. Jamie Whyte, former leader of the right-wing New Zealand Act Party and soon to be director of research at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London wrote an article for the New Zealand Herald denouncing the decision, saying that the ‘legislators have embarrassed themselves.’ According to him, rivers cannot be legal persons on the basis that the river itself has no preferences or interests to be represented or transgressed, and is unable to enjoy benefits or suffer harms.

Yes, rivers are not sentient beings, which makes this line of reasoning seem rational. However, once you consider the toxic level of pollution in the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers that has stagnated their streams and laid waste to aquatic life and biodiversity it becomes difficult to advocate the position that rivers cannot suffer harms. Human life, too, is reliant on the rivers.

Yet, the Ganges, the longest river in India running from the Himalayas in northern India, through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal, had an overall rate of water-borne/enteric diseases of 66% in 2006. With few successful efforts to clean up the rivers since, the finding of a recent WaterAid report revealing that more than 63 million Indians don’t have access to clean drinking water is less than surprising, but nonetheless astonishing.

Whilst the Whanganui River does not suffer from the same level of pollution as the Ganges and Yamuna, it is said that during the 1970s and 80s it was nearly dead due to water pollution. Having legal representation of the river’s interests ensures that this will never happen again.

Rather than this being liberal, legislative lunacy, it is in fact a crucial change in discourse with the potential to influence human attitudes to the environment. For centuries, the rights and interests of corporations and trusts, also non-human entities, have been successfully represented through legal procedure, so why should it be unthinkable that our environment, a much exploited resource in economic and social development and fundamental to the sustenance of life, should have the same representation?

In the last few decades, increasing warnings of the drastic and fatal consequences of climate change have been met with widespread inaction. If it takes legal recognition of the environment as a living entity to encourage sustainable living then so be it. In this respect, hopefully the Whanganui, Ganges and Yamuna Rivers are just the beginning.

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