March 21, 2023
Can rivers and mountains have rights?
For someone to take action to protect the natural environment from a risk of damage, it seems to require that person to act on behalf of the particular habitat and effectively to stand between the source of the threat and the threatened habitat. There is however a growing school of thought that the natural environment or at least parts of it should be accorded the status of a person in law. Countries from Ecuador to New Zealand have already granted legal rights to natural features such as mountains and rivers and similar moves are afoot in England.
The River Ouse is on course to be the first river in England to be granted legal rights, as part of a growing movement to bolster protection for nature through the law.
Lewes district council passed a rights of river motion acknowledging the rights of nature as a way of improving the health of local rivers by giving them similar protection to people, and agreed there was “a case to be made for considering our interactions with our local waterways”.
A charter on the river’s rights is now being developed, which will be sent to the council to endorse within the next two years. This is likely to be based on the Universal Declaration of River Rights, which says rivers should have the right to flow, perform essential functions within the river’s ecosystem, be free from pollution, feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers and have native biodiversity, as well as the right to regeneration and restoration.
The Ouse, like many other rivers around the country, gets filled with effluent and wastewater when sewage treatment plants along its route cannot cope with heavy rain. In 2019, every river in England failed to meet quality tests for pollution.
The move to grant the River Ouse rights was spearheaded by Matthew Bird, a Lewes town and district councillor. He told the Guardian he had become increasingly frustrated with the framing of discourse around water pollution. “The water companies are not taking their responsibilities seriously; there’s a policy vacuum at government level, and the Environment Agency, who are the river’s legal protectors, are not protecting it. At the same time, local communities feel powerless and vent frustrations in protest or take part in sporadic orchestrated meetings with Southern Water with no action followed up.”
The council had already passed two earlier motions highlighting clear evidence that water quality had deteriorated due to sewage pollution and recognising its obligation to protect local rivers. Bird said this was a response to growing public concerns for the health and wellbeing of water bodies and a determination to hold companies to account.
Attempts to give part of the River Frome in Somerset legal rights failed in 2020, prompting Bird to seek a new approach. After a mapping exercise held during a popular river festival, and with support from the Environmental Law Foundation and other experts, he drafted a motion he hoped would bring the whole community and a neighbouring local authority on board.
Despite initial opposition, Bird said an “impassioned speech” by a Conservative councillor in favour of the motion convinced most to vote for it. “That was quite amazing, and good to think that feelings towards the river can be stronger than politics,” he said.
Work on the charter will involve local people and environmental groups and will be discussed at the next catchment partnership meeting of organisations involved in protecting the water environment. Bird said there are still many unanswered questions about how the rights will work in practice. “But that’s fine. We have two years to work out an answer,” he said.
The motion was supported by local organisations including the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust and the Sussex Wildlife Trust.
Laws giving natural features such as rivers and mountains, or ecosystems, legal rights have been enacted around the world, from Ecuador to New Zealand.