In India, the government recognized rivers as living beings. In many other countries, they received the status of a legal entity

    12 Oct 2021

    Indian government recognized rivers as living beings to protect watercourses at the legal level. Both eco-activists and the indigenous people are fighting for this. In order for this movement to gain worldwide recognition, a special Declaration of the Rights of the Rivers was developed, which anyone can sign.

    (You can see on the cover the Wanganui River in New Zealand, from which the struggle for the rights of rivers began.)

    According to Bellona Environmental Law Center, the struggle for river rights is gaining momentum worldwide, from Bolivia to New Zealand.

    It all began in Ecuador in 2008, when wildlife rights were enshrined at the constitutional level. Animals, forests, rivers received the same legal protections as a person. However, the matter did not go further than the constitutional rights. The courts still did not consider wildlife as legally equal to humans.

    The precedent happened in 2017 in New Zealand. Then the Maori Indians managed to recognize the Wanganui River as a legal entity. That is, now its rights were protected by law, which the parliament confirmed.

    In the same year, in India, the Uttarakhand State Court granted the status of a legal entity to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. He ruled that rivers “breathe, live and support communities.” The Supreme Court of India confirmed the decision of the local court.

    In March 2020, the courts of the states of Punjab and Haryana ruled that Lake Sukhna, located in the city of Chandgirha, is a living being and has the same rights as any individual. All rivers in Bangladesh were recognized as living creatures.

    Today, in more than 20 countries worldwide, from Uganda to the United States, rivers and other watercourses are being protected. For example, in the United States of America, the Ne-Perce Indians secured legal status for the Snake River. This, in particular, made it possible to organize a more effective fight against the construction of dams in its basin.

    The Living Planet Index report stated that river biodiversity decreased significantly from 1970 to 2016 due to human activity. The total population of freshwater species has reduced by 84%. This is primarily due to economic activities. Today only 37% of rivers over 1000 kilometers long have free watercourses and are not regulated.

    The Cyrus Vance Center for International Justice, the Earth Law Center, and International Rivers have prepared a report that analyzed all legal precedents for river protection from Colombia to New Zealand. The study results showed that there is a dynamic of improving legislation in the world following the problems of climate change and the reduction of biodiversity.

    By giving rivers, lakes, forests, and other natural ecosystems legal rights, countries provide tools to protect them from human activity. Unfortunately, the reality is that in the modern world, in order for you to be protected, you must be able to present yourself in court. This, for example, made it possible to stop the pollution of the Atrato River in Colombia. Speaking on behalf of the river as a legal entity, environmental advocates were able to achieve more success than when they tried to protect the river as a vital watercourse for the local population.

    What can each of us do to ensure that rivers receive legal protection? For example, sign the International Declaration of the Rights of Rivers. Also, do not forget about the support of native watercourses. E.g., activists collect the signatures for the preservation of Pripyat, the European Amazon.


    Environmental threats are the biggest obstacle to human rights, the UN chief warned earlier. Check here for details.

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