Legal rights for rivers: A paradox for water governance

Dr Erin O’Donnell, water law and policy specialist and Research Fellow at Melbourne Law School, presented at UNSW on 10 July as part of GWI’s Water Issues Commentary Series.

Prof Cameron Holley, Dr Erin O'Donnell and Prof Greg Leslie pictured at Dr O'Donnell's July seminar

Recognised internationally for her research into the groundbreaking new field of legal rights for rivers, Dr O’Donnell’s presentation explored the paradox that is created when legal rights are given to rivers.

Dr O’Donnell explained thatwhen rivers are given legal personhood, people can go from protecting the environment or enabling the environment to protect itself, to being afraid of the environment very quickly. In the case of India’s Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, which were awarded legal personhood in 2017, State Government guardians were afraid that as guardians, they would be sued the next time the river flooded.

Additionally, when awarded legal personhood, rivers can take more action protect themselves however people are much less likely to want to protect them. While a legal object (a river without personhood) is viewed as weak and worthy—and we protect because it is the right thing to do—it can and should look after itself when it becomes a legal subject.

Dr O’Donnell’s explained that while legal rights for nature can be a really powerful tool, the difficulties and the tensions that can arise need to be addressed so that we can maximise peoples’ willingness to protect the environment.

Dr O’Donnell’s full presentation, including audio and powerpoint slides, is now available on the GWI YouTube channel.

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