Managing Rivers and Water Scarcity: How Legal Personality Can Be the Key Tool

river cutting through rock
Source: Unsplash

Caya Hein 

Water is vital for humanity: it is a source of life, necessary for subsistence, helpful for transport, and critical in the creation of cities and communities as we know it. In this respect, rivers are especially important as they provide fresh water, can be used for hygienic purposes (i.e. cleaning, sewer systems), agriculture, and inland transport. However, rivers can also bring certain dangers with them – carriers of sickness such as typhoid, cause of floodings, etc. – if not properly managed. The question of 1) how to manage water scarcity and 2) how legal personality can be a key tool in the proper management of rivers has recently been discussed by specialists, with an eye on the various possible solutions on how to deal with water scarcity and implement legal personality in the process. 

Water scarcity is the lack and rarity of water. It has manifested itself in the world since the end of the 20th century, due to an increase in the world population that was accompanied by a boom in industry development and an increase in the desire for a better lifestyle, thereby first leading to water depletion in western countries and followed by similar developments in Asia and Africa in the 21st century. If current trends of water resource usage continue, the 5000 m3 of water available to each person per year will shrink to 3000 m3 of water per person per year by 2050. ‘Water stress’ starts at 1000 m3 of water per person per year (Gosling 2012). Obviously, this also varies based on external factors such as region, year, and weather. There exists a need for us, as mankind, to make choices regarding the hierarchy of usage of water, according to Jean-Louis Chaussade (IAGF 2021). Chaussade argues that there is a need for a circular economy to ensure that population growth and consumption growth are sustainably supported, while there is also a need for governance systems for each body of water to ensure equitable usage and maintenance and to likewise rationalize each choice of usage (IAGF 2021).

Questions of river and water bodies’ maintenance are connected to issues concerning pollution, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem resilience. Hence, it is necessary to explore all possible ways of protecting, managing, and conserving our fresh water sources and their ecosystems. This means that even law and legal rights can be a tool, including granting legal personhood to rivers or rights to nature in general. These ideas originated from Christopher Stone, who argued that it was necessary to recognize the rights of nature in order to allow natural beings to play their roles in ecosystems, and in order to protect basic human rights of current and future generations (Stone 1972). The recognition of rights of nature involves the remodeling of norms that are currently for instance more favoring rights of enterprises over nature rights. Rights of nature include the right to life and existence, the right of respect, the right of regeneration and continuation of natural cycles, the right not to be polluted, and the right to be repaired when damaged. Such rights have already been recognized by several countries in their constitutions or in courts, including Ecuador (2008), Bolivia (2009), Uganda (2019), and New Zealand (2017). Some believe that these are cases in which these rights were largely supported due to the large indigenous populations and their rights and lifestyles that are often intrinsically linked to nature. However, this is not entirely true. Already in 2006, certain municipalities, cities, and regions in the US were for instance voting for rights of nature, as the best method to defend surrounding nature from misuse. In the European context, Corsica has for instance been inspired by New Caledonia (autonomous overseas region of France) to write its own Environmental Code, granting rights to natural elements (Tavignanu Vivu 2021).

Although there is clear international support from international organizations, nation states, and local and indigenous groups, there are still various issues in regards to the implementation of rights that need to be addressed before being able to see it as a viable solution for rivers. Some of the prevalent issues that arise are: “who will defend nature’s rights/act as its voice?” or “are legal answers that work for one river/country the answer for the collective?” or “what does restorative justice look like for the environment, since it cannot make use of money, like humans?”. To answer these various issues, Valérie Cabanes has explained that it does not suffice to simply change the laws, but that there also needs to be a systematic and intrinsic mindset shift (IAGF 2021). “Law is the last fence in front of violence” that can emanate from migration caused by the likely displacement of circa 400 million people due to climate change, or over resources that will continue to become scarcer in the world. International law is not enough to discipline states and multinational actors, but locals also need to act themselves to implement these laws. Rivers and other natural bodies are reliant on people having their best intention in mind, to care for them and represent them in court. Similarly, restorative justice for ecosystems often relies on human middlemen who can accept payments in order to then use that money to protect and rehabilitate nature. 

In conclusion, water scarcity is a serious threat that looms over the not so distant future if we maintain our current modus operandi. Due to resource scarcity, there are distinct chances that violence may occur, but it is also possible that agreements between countries, people, and other groups are made that may lead to better, more sustainable usage of natural entities such as rivers. Granting legal personhood to rivers is one of the tools that has been implemented over the past decade and has seen mixed results so far. Various factors impact its success, such as the legal basis on which the legal personhood is given, the social acceptance of rights of nature, the power of implementation (collective organization to represent, finance, etc.), and the authority taking the decision to grant legal personhood. If for instance only a section of a river is granted legal personhood by a municipality or region, the results will be less visible than if a state implements this change. It is clear that the success is not simply a question of indigenous belief systems and practices, but rather a shift in mindset of people dependent on rivers in general, to understand that they have to live together with and take care of nature in order to guarantee themselves and their progeny a better quality of life and sustainment of their human rights. Granting legal personhood to rivers is one method to help protect these natural entities from human exploitation and abuse, thereby creating an ecosystem that can also (re)present its issues in court. However, this is a tool that is still relatively new, relies on human help for implementation, and requires additional methods such as the creation of circular economies to make it feasible and future-proof. 


This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Carola Hein, Vincent Baptist and Foteini Tsigoni.

Gosling, Simon. “How Can Water Stress Be Calculated?” Sustainability: The Geography Perspective. The University of Nottingham.,then%20that%20region%20is%20classed%20as%20water%20stressed.

IAGF. 2021. “IFGR Talks with Valérie Cabanes and Jean-Louis Chaussade.”

Stone, Christopher D. “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” Southern California Law Review 45: 450-501.

Tavignanu Vivu. 2021. “Declaration for the Rights of the River Tavignanu.”