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Ashish Kothari, Mari Margil, Shrishtee Bajpai

Rivers around the world have been desecrated in every way. Now the Ganges and New Zealand’s Whanganui have legal standing, how will we protect their rights?

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Several geographically-distant but related events signalled a dramatic mind shift in humanity’s troubled relationship with nature last month. First, the New Zealand parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua Act, giving the Whanganui River and ecosystem a legal standing in its own right, guaranteeing its “health and well-being”.

Shortly after, a court in India ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and their related ecosystems have “the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities ... in order to preserve and conserve them”.


The history of the rivers makes these proclamations remarkable. The Ganges has long been considered sacred and millions of people depend on it for sustenance, yet it has been polluted, mined, diverted and degraded to a shocking extent. The Whanganui has witnessed a century-old struggle between the indigenous Iwi people and the New Zealand government over its treatment. Notably, the Iwi consider themselves and the Whanganui as an indivisible whole, expressed in the common saying: “I am the river, and the river is me.”

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Rivers are the arteries of the earth, and lifelines for humanity and millions of other animals and plants. It’s no wonder they have been venerated, considered as ancestors or mothers, and held up as sacred symbols. But we have also desecrated them in every conceivable way. Can giving them the legal rights of a human help resolve this awful contradiction?

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