Could rivers be granted rights?

Like a snake, rivers bend, twist and turn whichever way they please, almost making them behave like something truly alive, and yet we know they are just rushing courses of water.

That’s not to say, however, that rivers are completely without life within them. It’s hard to think of the average river without seeing reeds and other plants protruding above the water, or living on the riverbed, along with the fish and other aquatic animals. Could a river’s place in nature be enough to have them awarded rights?

A river’s right

The River Frome is a south-westerly-flowing river in the West Country, known locally in the East Bristol area as the Danny, which runs for at least 32km. Its source is to be found in Doddington Park, South Gloucestershire, with a mouth that opens into Floating Harbour, Bristol.

Until 2008, it was the home of an endangered group of white-clawed crayfish, and back in 2018, Frome Town Council attempted to do something truly extraordinary: they intended to pass a bylaw, effectively ensuring the river be considered a person by law, or give the river legal personhood, to use the precise words.

The intention was to enshrine the River Frome’s right to exist, to flourish, flow unimpeded and to maintain a natural water cycle. In addition, the river would be granted the right to be restored in the event of any natural or manmade disaster, ensuring it can continue to exist in some shape or form no matter what.

Going with the flow

The fight to protect rivers goes on, with the publication of a Universal Declaration of River Rights. Just as the UN Charter is intended to maintain peace and security after two world wars, the Universal Declaration of River Rights is part of the wider Earth Law Center (ELC). This organisation is dedicated to honouring the right of nature to exist, flourish and evolve.

While it might sound bizarre to give naturally-occurring and inanimate features such as rivers legal personhood, it could be just the solution we need to enshrine various environmental protections, so we never allow nature to be recklessly bulldozed, destroyed or built on.The National River Flow Archive (NRFA) estimates that there are almost 1,500 discrete river systems in the UK, spanning a distance of 200,000km in total. While many of the UK’s rivers are small fry compared to titans such as the Nile or the Amazon rivers, our waterways are rich habitats which need protecting. If the likes of the ELC and Frome Town Council do prove successful in their endeavours if they keep up the good work, rivers could face better protections than they have ever known and continue to flow freely without disturbance.

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