A woman offers prayers as a boy searches for coins with a piece of magnet, on the banks of the Ganges River, in Kolkata, India March 20. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

Just a few weeks ago, the idea that a river could be legally recognized as a human would probably seem unlikely. But in a remarkably short time, separate legal systems halfway around the world have decided that in some cases, a river should have human rights.

The first decision took place last week in New Zealand, where Parliament passed a bill granting the Whanganui River the same legal status as a human. It was thought to be the first decision of its kind. It’s been followed this week by a similar move in India, where the high court in the northern state of Uttarakhand ruled Monday that the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers should have the same legal status as humans.

In both cases, the legal actions were prompted by environmental concerns and partly justified for religious reasons.

In New Zealand, native Maori people had long argued that their spiritual connection with the Whanganui deserved legal recognition. The Whanganui iwi (people) even have a saying, the local Wanganui Chronicle reports: “I am the river and the river is me.”


Britain's Prince Harry, second from right, paddles in a waka (Maori war canoe) on the Whanganui River during a visit to Whanganui in New Zealand in May 2015. (Marty Melville/AFP)

Maori communities had been fighting for almost 150 years to have their relationship with the river recognized. Under the new agreement, the river would also receive $56 million in compensation as well as $21 million for a fund designed to keep the river healthy. One government representative and one Maori representative would act for the river in legal disputes.

The rivers in India are also considered sacred by many Hindus. Both the Ganges and the Yamuna are personified as goddesses, and devout Hindus bathe in the rivers for religious reasons.

However, both rivers are known to be deeply polluted. It's been estimated that more than 1 billion gallons of waste enter the Ganges every day, presenting an enormous ecological problem that India has struggled to fix, while scientists have described the Yamuna as “dead” because its toxic waters can no longer support life.


Boats are silhouetted against the sun's reflection on the Yamuna River in Allahabad, India, on March 21. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

The decision to give the Ganges and the Yamuna the same rights as a human was designed to help legally protect them. It means that complaints can be filed under the rivers’ names, the Hindustan Times reports. Three officials will act as legal custodians for the waterways.

Designating a river as human isn’t without precedent. As New Zealand’s Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said last week, giving the Whanganui River human rights is “no stranger” than similar arrangements made for “family trusts, or companies or incorporated societies.” New Zealand had just last year decided that the Te Urewera National Park should be designated human.

The action in New Zealand appears to have sparked the Uttarakhand court’s decision. It’s unclear whether the trend will continue, but there has been long-standing debate around the world about whether natural features should have legal rights. But not all environmental activists are convinced that the moves are enough.

“Merely announcing that it is a living entity will not save the river,” Vimlendu Jha, an environmental activist who has been fighting to clean the Yamuna, told the Associated Press. “The state government, officials and citizens need to act to clean up the river and stop further pollution.”

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