Human rights for rivers: Symbolic or pragmatic?

New Zealand has given the country’s third longest river – the Whanganui – the same legal rights as a human being.

The Whanganui is of special and spiritual importance to the Maori people, as such it is regarded as taonga, a special treasure, and must now be treated as a living entity. The river was recognised as having a legal identity on 30 August 2012, but the New Zealand Parliament only passed it into law on 15 March 2017.

According to the Whanganui tribe, the river is an ancestor. From their perspective, treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model of the last 100 years based on ownership and management.

In what is undoubtedly a contentious decision for gold mining and logging companies, the river’s new status means if someone abuses or harms it, the law now sees no distinction Whanganui-riverbetween harming the tribe or harming the river because they are one and the same.

For nearly a millennium, the Atihaunui hapu have held the Whanganui River. They were known as the river people for, uniquely among the rivers of New Zealand, the Whanganui River winds through a precipitous terrain that confined most of the large Atihaunui population to a narrow margin along its banks.

The river became central to Atihaunui lives, their source of food, their single highway, their spiritual mentor. Shrouded in history and tradition, the river remains symbolic of Atihaunui identity and is the focal point for the Atihaunui people, whether living there or away.

Following New Zealand’s lead, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand has ordered that the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, be given the status of living human entities. The Ganges is considered sacred by more than 1 billion Indians. The decision, welcomed by environmentalists, means that polluting or damaging the rivers will be legally equivalent to harming a person. It remains to be seen what real effect such legislation will have in future.

China, not known for its protection of human rights, is unlikely to follow New Zealand and India up this particular creek without a paddle. According to “A river of rubbish: the ugly secret threatening China’s most beautiful city” (The Guardian, 24 March 2017), Greenpeace China says that one third of the country’s rivers are contaminated and a Chinese government report from the ministry of water resources just one year ago noted 80% of shallow ground water wells as being polluted. Apparently, water pollution remains a taboo subject in China and prominent environmentalists have been charged with espionage for speaking out about the situation.

Protecting the world’s water sources – rivers, seas, and oceans – has to have high priority. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote:

“What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”


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