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Rights of Rivers at the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2021

September 10, 2021
The Whanganui River in New Zealand, the first river to be granted ‘legal personhood’ rights in 2017. Image: Tim Proffitt-White | Flickr Creative Commons

Today is the final day of the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2021, held in Marseille. The Congress has brought together over a thousand participants from government, academia, public and indigenous peoples’ organisations to set priorities for global conservation and sustainable development.

Freshwater ecosystems are one of the seven key themes addressed by sessions at this year’s Congress. Alongside numerous freshwater events, two plenary sessions (here and here) and a forum outlined the key pressures facing global freshwaters, and discussed how they could be managed under policy frameworks such as the Convention on Biological Diversity 2021, held next month in Kunming, China.

The Congress programme states that environmental rights and equitable governance are crucial in protecting freshwater ecosystems, and supporting the human communities that depend on them. It asks, “How can existing laws, policies, and institutions be strengthened and adapted to ensure the more effective and sustainable management of water resources at the local, national and transboundary levels? How can we effectively strengthen governance and stewardship to maintain healthy watersheds, and address pollution and contamination?”

One response to these questions comes in the form of the Rights of Rivers movement, highlighted at the Congress. The movement states that all rivers should be regarded as living entities that possess legal standing in a court of law. This means that ‘fundamental rights’ of rivers – such as free flows, protection from pollution, biodiversity habitat and ecological functioning – are given strong legal protections.

A Rights of Rivers session at the Congress marked the one year anniversary of the launch of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers, which sets out the basic rights to which rivers should be entitled. This outlook contrasts with established environmental legal frameworks, which recognise ‘nature’ as human property to be managed. Instead, the Rights of Rivers movement states that rivers and their watersheds are living entities with inherent rights to be conserved and restored.

“It is obvious that effective river management works best at the basin scale, and ‘river rights’, as described in the Declaration, is a very important way of achieving this and ensuring protection of ecosystem integrity,” says Angela Andrade, Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Five years ago we covered the landmark ‘legal personhood’ designation of the Whanganui River in New Zealand. The legislation gives the right for the indigenous Whanganui tribe to speak for the river in the country’s courts, and to file lawsuits on its behalf when environmental protections are not upheld. This approach can be seen as a type of co-management, through which the rights of the river, and its health and diversity, are upheld through decision-making involving local Maori tribes.

Passed in 2017 by the New Zealand parliament, the legislation named the Whanganui as the first river in the world to be recognised as an indivisible and living being. In essence, this outlook shifts the management frame from seeing freshwaters as a resource to be exploited towards understanding them as living entities which should be sustainably guided towards ecologically healthy futures, for both humans and non-humans alike.

Communities on the banks of the Atrato River, Colombia, which was awarded legal rights in 2017. Image: Agencia Prensa Rural | Flickr Creative Commons

“Western law and culture often treat rivers as a human resource instead of recognising the reality that they are living systems,” says Jessica Sweidan, Co-founder and Trustee of Synchronicity Earth and IUCN Patron of Nature. “An important step towards correcting this falsehood is for rivers and other natural entities to be recognised in law as legal entities with intrinsic rights.” 

“The playbook for protecting rivers and watersheds must evolve beyond the traditional environmental law approaches we’ve been using since the 1960s, as such laws are helpful but grossly inadequate,” says Grant Wilson, Executive Director of Earth Law Center. “The Declaration is a useful legislative starting point for those wishing to promote new, Earth-centred legal protections for fresh waters.”

Since the Whanganui legislation was passed, a number of other global rivers have been granted similar declarations of rights. In 2017, broadly similar legislation was passed for the Atrato River in Colombia and the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers in India. In the last year alone, examples include Boulder Creek and the Boulder Creek Watershed ( USA), the Magpie River (Canada), waterways in Orange County, Florida (USA), the Alpayacu River (Ecuador), and the Paraná River and Wetlands (Rosario, Argentina).

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers has been gaining global support since its release last year. Last week, 16 IUCN members co-sponsored a motion calling on the IUCN to endorse the Declaration, although it did not pass. However, advocates for the Rights of Rivers approach suggest that the Declaration offers a powerful and customisable legal model for global governments to strengthen their freshwater conservation and restoration policies.

Can such a model be embraced by policy makers attempting to manage rivers in complex and dynamic contemporary environments? How can it fit with, and even enhance, existing freshwater conservation and restoration schemes? It will be fascinating to trace the development of these debates over the coming years.

“Globally, rivers have enormous social, cultural, environmental, and economic value, but are becoming progressively more threatened,” says Kristen Walker, Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy. “The Rights of Rivers approach is becoming increasingly important for ensuring that they can continue to provide these essentials to benefit nature and the people who rely on them.” 


Find out more about Rights of Rivers

Read the Rights of Rivers: A global survey of the rapidly developing Rights of Nature jurisprudence pertaining to rivers report.

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