Entering unchartered waters: awarding legal rights to rivers

11 Sep 2018

The need to ensure greater water security may be met with the creation of legal rights for rivers. In 2017, three major rivers were granted legal rights: New Zealand’s Whanganui River, and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India. Importantly, such rights enable a river’s legal guardian to bring an action in court if the river is damaged. While the idea of legal rights may seem like an innovative way to protect against the pollution or degradation of a river, there are a number of challenges that need to be considered when assessing how valuable this tool may be.

Key points:

  • In 2017, three of the world’s major rivers were granted legal rights. New Zealand’s Whanganui River and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India.
  • A legal “person” does not have to be a human being. Granting these rights to rivers may enable greater protection and enhance water security. Corporations are awarded legal status in a similar way.
  • There are a number of challenges to be considered when evaluating how effective this tool may be, however, including issues with enforcement, how the rights are created and consideration of potential, unintended, consequences.
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