Down to Earth

A river humanised

New Zealand plans to legally declare its third largest river, the


AS KARNATAKA and Tamil Nadu battle over the Cauvery river, a groundbrea­king developmen­t has taken place in New Zealand. The Pacific nation is set to legally declare its third largest river, the Whanganui, a person .

If the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill is passed, it would grant the river legal personhood . As a result, for the first time, Maori tribes will be able to file lawsuits on the river's behalf if there are environmen­tal violations. The tribes will neither own the water nor any water rights will be created through the agreement. Their focus is on fulfilling community obligation­s and responsibi­lities towards the river. With the exception of Ecuador in South America, which granted rights to its natural ecosystems a few years ago, New Zealand's legislatio­n may become the first in the world exclusivel­y for river protection.

settlers on the island violated the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 between Maori chiefs and the British Crown on how to live together in New Zealand. This bill is a part of the process of reconcilia­tion with the Maori tribes undertaken by the New Zealand government, says Jacinta Ruru, professor at the University of Otago.

The Whanganui river is New Zealand's longest navigable river. For centuries, Maoris drank from its streams, survived on its resources and revered it as their spiritual home. From 1887, steam-boat services destroyed fish and eel population­s. Dredging in the riverbed became a concern. Today, there are hardly any freshwater fisheries remaining in the river.

From the 1870s till the present, tribes living around the Whanganui have sought justice for their claims and protection of the river. Their appeals finally reached a conclusion on August 30, 2012, when the Maori tribes and the Crown signed a preliminar­y agreement, which recorded the key elements of the agreed Te Awa Tupua framework for the Whanganui river.

This small indigenous population of New Zealand may have some traditiona­l answers on how to manage our rivers without conflict. Western concepts of legal ownership emphasise individual and exclusive ownership. Maori, on the other hand, emphasise rights and responsibi­lities in a more collective manner to use and care for natural resources, explains Ruru.

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