Legal rights for rivers: more power, less protection?

The following essay is the third in a series exploring the recent phenomenon in which a number of courts and legislatures have conferred legal personality on specific rivers (see first essay / second essay). The purpose of this series is to engage in a dialogue assessing the merits and value of such recognition, as well as possible implications. This essay is written by Dr. Erin O’Donnell, a water law and policy specialist currently a Senior Fellow with The University of Melbourne and a consultant for The World Bank. She can be reached at erin.odonnell [at]

In 2017, four rivers received legal rights and became legal persons: the Whanganui in New Zealand, Rio Atrato in Colombia, and the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India. Legal rights for rivers certainly sounds like a good idea: it means giving rivers the legal tools to protect themselves, and expands legal systems to include consideration of the needs and rights of nature, as well as humans.

But this very framing highlights two significant problems. Firstly, just what is ‘nature’? Western legal frameworks have dealt very poorly with this concept, and tend to embed a dichotomy between the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’, which breaks the powerful bonds between people and country that are so central for First Nations peoples.

Secondly, why should nature need to protect itself in law? Modern environmental law is essentially public law created to protect collective values and interests in a clean and healthy environment. It is part of a broader set of public interest laws intended to ensure that the law acts on behalf of those too vulnerable to speak up for themselves in an adversarial context.

Giving rivers legal rights replaces this emphasis on the collective good with individual rights, most particularly the right to sue and be sued (legal standing), so that rivers can go to court and advocate for their own interests. In 1972, Christopher Stone made a compelling argument as to why legal standing is so important: without it, harm to the river can only be recognised if it is also harm to human beings. But standing law has evolved significantly since 1972, and many environmental organisations can now speak on behalf of the environment. Ultimately, rivers only need a voice if we expect them to compete for their own outcomes. Giving rivers a voice means we can effectively abdicate our responsibilities for looking after them, because they will do it instead.

What kind of evidence is there for these sorts of unexpected effects? Rivers have only received legal rights directly in the past year, and it is too soon to tell exactly what impacts these new legal entities will have. But we can examine some less direct examples, such as the legal entities responsible for recovering and managing environmental water, to see what might happen next.


Murray River

Emerging narratives: competition and collaboration

Environmental water managers are found throughout the world, but are particularly active in acquiring and managing water using water markets in Australia and the USA. What makes them useful examples is that they use their legal personality to make decisions on where, when and how to use water to achieve ecological outcomes, and in doing so, they begin to speak and act on behalf of the aquatic environment.

In Australia, environmental water managers are now some of the largest holders of water rights in the Murray Darling Basin. This water has been recovered via investment in the water market, as well as investing in infrastructure efficiency to generate water savings. In 2004, policy makers argued that the environment has a legitimate need for water. By 2008, the rhetoric had shifted dramatically: the environment was labelled ‘just another user’ of water in the media, and rather than seeing the environment as an essential element for water resource security, irrigators began viewing the environment as a competitor. In 2010, policy submissions to the Productivity Commission supported using markets to buy back water for the environment from willing sellers. By 2015, in response to pressure from the irrigators, the Australian government passed legal reform to limit the volume of water that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder could buy from other users. The environmental water holders had successfully transformed the aquatic environment from a legal object, to a legal subject, with rights of its own. But in doing so, they had managed to weaken support for legal protections that were perceived as special treatment for the environment.

Weakened legal protections and the shifting cultural narratives have undermined the billions that have been invested in water recovery for the environment by leaving environmental water vulnerable to theft, and the environmental water holders with little recourse.

The situation in the western USA has evolved rather differently. Environmental water managers have been unable to rely on highly active water markets, so they have been forced to adopt a much more consensus-based approach to water recovery across the western USA. Each transaction to recover water for the environment is long and expensive, but each transaction produces a local champion, willing to extol the benefits of water recovery to their local communities.

However, legal rights are only valuable to the extent that they can be enforced. Environmental water managers can find it difficult to use the legal powers they currently have, if it means going up against members of their communities. Legally, they may retain the same set of rights and duties as other users of water (although many states still impose specific limits on water for environmental purposes), but they cannot make effective use of them without losing community support.

The paradox of legal rights for rivers

Rivers with legal rights can take action to protect themselves, but when they do, people are less likely to want to protect them, and less willing to support legislation that does. This apparent paradox creates real problems for the emerging jurisprudence of rivers as legal persons, and it may well create more problems than it solves.

We can already see some early warning signs. In India, the High Court of Uttarakhand awarded the Ganga and Yamuna rivers the status of a legal person, and nominated individuals within the state government of Uttarakhand to act as guardians. The government immediately appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of India, in part, because they were afraid that they could be sued for damages caused by the rivers during flooding events. The Supreme Court has stayed implementation of the original ruling, leaving the legal status of the rivers in limbo until they reach a decision.

Hope for the future?

It may be possible to mitigate this paradox by building stronger connections between people and rivers. The two most successful cases of legal rights for rivers, in New Zealand and Colombia, show the power of using legal rights for rivers to protect not only the ecology of the river, but also the relationship between people and the river. In New Zealand, the legislation is explicit: the new legal rights rest on the Maori belief of Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au: I am the River and the River is me.

The Yarra River at Pound Bend

In Australia, the Victorian state government passed new legislation in 2017 to recognise the Yarra River as a living entity, on the basis that such recognition reflects the views of the Traditional Owners (the Wurundjeri and Bunorong Nations). The Victorian Environmental Water Holder, the second largest environmental water manager in Australia, is actively seeking new ways to build stronger relationships with all the people who use and value rivers and wetlands in Victoria, including an annual forum where recreational fishers, farmers, duck hunters, camping enthusiasts, regional communities and environmental advocates come together to discuss why water for the environment matters.


Giving legal rights to rivers merely for the sake of enabling rivers to go to court may end up being counterproductive. But it may be possible to achieve the larger goal of transforming our relationship with nature to one of mutual respect, rather than exploitation, by centering those new legal rights on the relationship between people and the river.


Further reading:

O’Donnell E and J Talbot-Jones (2018) ‘Creating legal rights for rivers: lessons from Australia, New Zealand, and India’ Ecology and Society 23(1):7

O’Donnell E (2018) ‘At the intersection of the sacred and the legal: rights for nature in Uttarakhand, India’ Journal of Environment Law 30(1):135-144

O’Donnell E (2017) ‘Competition or Collaboration? ‘Using Legal Persons to Manage Water for the Environment in Australia and the United States’ Environmental and Planning Law Journal 34(6): 503-521. (email me for a copy)

O’Donnell E (26 November 2017) ‘New Legal Rights for Rivers’ Global Water Forum


One Response to “Legal rights for rivers: more power, less protection?”

  1. Erin O’Donnell says:

    If you would like to hear more about the issues discussed in the essay, you can take a listen to a brand new podcast on legal rights for rivers, available here: