Flowing from fiction to fact: The challenges of implementing legal rights for rivers

The following essay is the fourth 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 / third 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. Julia Talbot-Jones who recently completed her PhD in economics at the Australian National University, and serves as Managing Editor of the UNESCO Global Water Forum. She can be reached at julia.talbot-jones [at] anu.edu.au.

Granting a river legal standing may sound like the stuff of fiction, but in 2017 four rivers were granted legal rights in rapid succession: the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India, and the Rio Atrato in Colombia. Although these recent events washed away the fictional narrative, questions remain about how the approach will work in practice.

This essay engages with the practicalities of effective governance, drawing comparisons between the Whanganui River case and the India examples to understand the circumstances under which the approach may be a useful governance tool.  It will also shine light on some of the social costs of granting rivers legal rights that may be otherwise unanticipated by policy makers.

What determines the effectiveness of legal rights for rivers?

The effectiveness of using the granting of legal rights to rivers as an alternative water governance approach is likely to depend on how the change is enacted and the broader framework in which it is embedded.

In the case of the Whanganui River, eight years were taken to develop an institutional framework that incorporated the Māori worldview into legislation in a way that could work with existing laws and social norms.  Granting the Whanganui River and its catchment legal rights through legislation was a pragmatic way of achieving this.

Motivation for the change came from needing to resolve ownership issues, which had been long-standing and costly for Whanganui Iwi (the local Māori tribe) and the Crown (New Zealand government), as well as other river users. As a result, in designing the new framework the actors involved (Iwi and the Crown) were economically and socially invested in reaching a successful resolution.  Further, those involved in designing the institutional arrangement were those most likely to be affected by the changes.  This gave the actors a feeling of ownership over the end result and allowed for local knowledge to be incorporated into the decision-making process and legislation.

The resulting institutional framework, Te Pā Auroa nā Te Awa Tupua, also includes rules designed to control for some of the more obvious risks and costs of granting rivers legal rights, such as rent-seeking by the guardians and processes for managing conflict over competing uses.  It defines a boundary around the affected area (the catchment) and specifies who retains what responsibilities over decision-making.  Further, the new framework was designed to be implemented in two stages to smooth the transition and provide the opportunity for adaptation, as needed.

In contrast, the Uttarakhand court in northern India instated legal rights for the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in a surprise ruling two days after the Whanganui River legislation was announced.  The designation of legal rights was designed to trigger a substantive shift in the way that the rivers were managed and protected in law, but there seems to have been little thought to how the change would work in practice.

For instance, the Ganges and Yamuna rivers are transboundary rivers that stretch across several states in India, as well as into Bangladesh.  This means that a state ruling from northern India may struggle to be enforced in other jurisdictions. Further, the absence of an integrated institutional framework means that there is little guidance for the guardians on how they are supposed to behave or where the limits of discretion lie. The conflation of legal person and living person in the court decision complicates this further by failing to properly define (or codify) the rights’ breadth.

Unintended consequences of granting legal rights to rivers

For policy makers or judicial experts interested in granting rights to rivers, the elements of the broader Te Awa Tupua framework are important to note, particularly because, in the absence of an integrated framework, granting a river legal rights could have unintended consequences for society as a whole.

For example, recognising a river as a person will require the political system to find ways and means to deliver and uphold a river’s new legal rights, sometimes at the direction of the courts.  Because judges do not have the discretion to make decisions based on the potential consequences of their decrees this may mean that upholding the rights of the river may impose unexpected costs on other sections or scales of society.

Further, although granting legal rights to rivers has the potential to benefit some industries and professionals who stand to gain by providing court-mandated goods and services, it also carries the risk of forcing the court to become politicised.  This has the potential to compromise moral authority and public confidence in the system.  The series of events following the Uttarakhand decision provides evidence of how this can, and has, occurred.

Granting legal rights to rivers also places the responsibility of looking after, and representing, the environmental good or resource in the appointed guardians, rather than elected officials.  Without broader institutional and financial support, this means that only wealthy or well-endowed representatives will be able to challenge decisions and enter costly litigation, should a river wish to sue or find itself the subject of an individual or class action.

Given the financial burden of engaging in judicial process, perhaps it is not surprising that Ecuador – a country, which granted all of nature legal rights in 2008 – has had only three cases of the rights of nature being successfully brought to court by civil society.  In the first case, two American residents who live part-time in Ecuador brought a case against the Provincial Government of Loja on behalf of the Vilcabamba River.  The plaintiffs owned property downstream of a road that was to be widened and that runs past the river.  The couple argued on behalf of nature that the new construction was adding debris to the river and thus increasing the likelihood of floods that affected the riverside populations that utilise the river’s resources.

Admittedly, in the case of the rivers discussed here, nominated guardians have been appointed to speak on behalf of the rivers and in the case of the Whanganui River, a NZ$30 million contestable fund has been created for the purposes of improving Te Awa Tupua’s health and wellbeing, as well as litigation purposes.  However, in the case of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, no financial support has been provided, which potentially limits the legitimacy and power of Ganges and Yamuna rivers’ legal rights, and that of the guardians who represent them.

Conclusions

Overall, granting the Whanganui River and its catchment legal rights set new precedent for water governance globally.  It was one of the most significant changes in water management in the past decade and demonstrates that the concept of granting rights to rivers is now more fact than fiction.

However, comparing the case of the Whanganui River with the examples of the Ganges and Yamuna also brings attention to the fact that the reason granting legal rights to rivers may be an effective water governance tool is really due to the broader institutional framework that embeds the new system into existing legislative structures.

For policy makers interested in using legal rights as an approach for the governance of rivers, considerations of institutional design and the potential effects on wider societal outcomes are important to note.  With any luck this will help reduce the risk of additional costs arising when rivers are granted legal standing in the future.

Further Reading

Fish, L., 2013. Homogenizing community, homogenizing nature: An analysis of conflicting rights in the rights of nature debate. Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal, 12, pp.6–11.

Kauffman, C.M. & Martin, P.L., 2017. Can rights of nature make development more sustainable? Why some Ecuadorian lawsuits succeed and others fail. World Development, 92, pp.130–142.

O’Donnell E.L., 2017. At the intersection of the sacred and the legal: Rights for nature in Uttarakhand, India. Journal of Environment Law, 30(1), pp.135-144.

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

Salmond, A., 2014. Tears of Rangi: Water, power, and people in New Zealand. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4(3), pp.285–309.

 

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