Water Management – Institutional Reforms, Conservation Efforts, etc.

Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Rights of River

Mains level : River conservation

Activists have highlighted the plight of rivers as well as the support building up for according rights to them under the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers.

What constitutes the Rights of Rivers?

  • Flow: If we look at a river as an ecosystem instead of cubic metres of water, then the ambit of rights gets broadened.
  • Flora and fauna: It includes aquatic flora and fauna, the biodiversity in its catchment areas, forests, its tributaries, groundwater, the rocks and soil in its bed and banks.
  • Human settlements: The rights of rivers in a sense would mean the ecological causes and conditions making up the natural habitat. Human settlements dependent is the prime factor.
  • Economy: Such rights should not put an end to fishing or other localized, subsistence-based human needs related to the river, but rather push for a healthy relationship respecting the river as an ecosystem.

Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers

  • The declaration is a civil society initiative to define the basic rights to which all rivers are entitled, according to a note by non-profit, International Rivers.
  • This trend of granting rights to nature, taking place across the world, signals the beginnings of a radical shift from an extractive mindset to one where conservation safeguards are being extended to nature.
  • The right to recognize rivers as living entities rather than mere human property started in 2008.
  • That year, Ecuador became the first country to constitutionally recognize the Rights of Nature.

Present campaigns

  • In the one year since the declaration, rights have been recognised or declared for the Boulder Creek watershed in the US, the Magpie River in Canada, the Alpayacu river in Ecuador and the Paraná river and its wetlands in Argentina.
  • Several campaigns calling for rights to be accorded to rivers have also incorporated the declaration.
  • These include campaigns for the Lempa river in El Salvador, Tavignanu river in France, Ethiope river in Nigeria, the Indus river in Pakistan and the Frome river in the UK.
  • In 2017, a treaty agreement between the Whanganui Iwi (a Māori tribe) and the New Zealand government recognized the Whanganui River as a legal person.

Recognition of such rights in India

  • In 2017, the Uttarakhand HC ruled that the Indian rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers, as well as other related natural elements are “legal persons” with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person.
  • Subsequently, in 2018, the same high court ruled that the entire animal kingdom has rights equivalent to that of a living person.


  • Cultural practices: Activists and communities have been arguing for a need of cultural change that can bring about the ethic of care with regard to the rest of nature. Indigenous people have had such an ethic in their worldviews and ways of living.
  • Development paradigm: The most critical challenge is whether can rights be protected without changing the current development paradigm. Any paradigm shift also needs questioning of fundamental forms of injustices, including capitalism, statism, anthropocentrism, and patriarchy.
  • Cross-boundary issues: Rivers don’t necessarily follow human-made political boundaries. Indus, one of the longest that runs through China, Pakistan, and India, doesn’t flow as per political boundaries. Its contiguity demands a cross-boundary approach.
  • Cooperation deficit: There is still very limited understanding across the world on how a law on the rights of rivers can be implemented. What would be the best ways to ensure custodianship, restitution, compensation.

UPSC 2022 countdown has begun! Get your personal guidance plan now! (Click here)

Get an IAS/IPS ranker as your 1: 1 personal mentor for UPSC 2024

Attend Now

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Join us across Social Media platforms.

💥Mentorship New Batch Launch
💥Mentorship New Batch Launch