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  • Writer's pictureMahika Weerasekare

Where there is water there is life

“According to the worldview of my ancestors, wai (water) is everything. For example, in greeting someone new, we ask “Ko wai koe?” which queries “Who are you?” but more literally translates as “Who are your waters?”-Jacinta Ruru, Professor of Law, University of Otago(1)

Safeguarding and Managing a Finite Resource

Water is a finite and shared resource. While 75% of the earth’s surface is covered with water only 2.5 % of it is fresh2. 40% of the world’s population get their water from 276 rivers that cross international boundaries, spanning 151 countries, making water the most important global resource in the 21st century(3,4).

San Juan Islands, Washington State | Photo by David Williams

Orca Pod

With overuse and pollution, the world is facing a water crisis that threatens all life forms. Restoring water quality of lakes and rivers as well as fair sharing of water has become critically important.

Countries and communities are taking a novel approach to safeguard their water resources by giving rivers and lakes legal personhoods. The idea of extending legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers, and other so-​called ‘natural objects’ in the environment was first proposed in 1972 by USC Law professor Christopher D. Stone, an authority on environmental and global issues. This allows court appointed guardians of ‘the waters’ to sue polluters on their behalf(5). They can also advocate protection and educate courts and the public of consequences of inaction.

This is the story of a river and two lakes, a river that is a legal person, a lake waiting for legal protection of its waters and an ancient lake on whose shore’s humanity was born but is no more.

The Whanganui River-the first river that is a legal person(1)

The longest navigable river in New Zealand, the Whanganui River, was awarded legal personhood in 2017.

The ownership of the Whanganui River has been the subject of one of the longest running legal battles between the indigenous Māori people and the European settlers. In 1840, the British crown took possession of the Māori lands, destroying their traditional way of life, their rivers, lakes, and forests. With the habitat damage, fish, bird and other aquatic populations once the sustenance of the Māori’s declined.

The destruction of the Whanganui River by the settlers came from various acts spanning over a century: mining for gravel, destruction of mangrove trees, dams built for hydropower, urban effluents etc.

Influenced by Professor Stone, it was finally an argument made in 2010 by two Māori legal scholars, James Morris and Jacinta Ruru, that waterways in New Zealand needed to be seen as legal people that brought a resolution to the ownership conflict(6). In 2017, while no ownership was conferred, the Whanganui River was recognized as a legal person. Two guardians were appointed to act on behalf of the river, the New Zealand government and the Māori people, giving the indigenous communities the right to conserve and nourish their river once again.

Closer to home- Lake Eerie the right to legal personhood -is in limbo.

Harmful algae blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie, the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world, have become an annual occurrence. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they produce a toxin that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and liver damage in people and animals when consumed(7).

In the summer of 2014, high levels of toxin from a HAB, found in Toledo’s drinking water, prompted the State of Ohio to declare a state of emergency(8). Almost half a million residents had their water supplies disrupted for two days. Boiling the water to reduce the risk was not an option-this would make the problem worse by concentrating the toxin-110 people got sick, residents also reported pets experiencing health issues(9).

In addition to releasing toxins, when the algae blooms die, the bacteria feeding on dead matter sucks almost all the oxygen out of water creating “dead zones” where no other aquatic life can exist. Toxic, unsightly, and smelly, these blooms also affect recreational activities.

The cause of the algae blooms is linked to nutrient pollution (Safe Drinking Water). In the 1960’s, the HABs in Lake Erie were primarily attributed to phosphorus from sewage and effluent from industrial plants. Regulations from the Clean Water Act of 1972 (Safe Drinking Water) and the 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the USA reduced contributions from these sources(10). The primary cause for the current HABs, fertilizer and manure runoff from millions of acers of surrounding farmland, remains unregulated, trusting farmers to implement best management practices(11).

Tired of recurring algae blooms, Toledo voters, in a special election in February 2019 approved a bill, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR), that allowed the residents to hold the State of Ohio accountable for failing to protect the Lake Erie watershed(12).

The law is yet to be enacted, with ensuing lawsuits both against and for LEBOR and the courts siding with one side or the other at different times(13).

While the fate of the Lake Erie’s waters is yet to be decided, there have been some

successes in restoring other polluted waterbodies in the US, biggest being the Klamath River dam removal. The dams damaged centuries old livelihood of the Klamath Basin tribes that depend on salmon. Prompted by a massive salmon kill in 2002 and toxic algae growth in stagnant water created by the dams, Klamath Basin tribal leaders lead the movement that called to remove the lower four of the eight dams on the Klamath. The removal of the four dams will allow the natural flow of the river, restore water quality, and allow safe passage for salmon, salmon would reach the Klamath Tribes of Oregon for the first time since the first dam was built more than a century ago. It is not only humans that depend on healthy rivers. For example, a restored salmon population would also protect endangered southern resident Pacific Orcas that mainly feed on Chinook salmon(15,16).

There is no life without water- Lake Makgadikgadi- humanity’s birthplace (maybe) is a lake no more.

In a paper published in Nature (2019), an international team of scientists claimed the first modern humans to have originated in the shores of Lake Makgadikgadi 200,000 years ago(17). Although this claim is disputed, supported by the Stone Age Tools found in the area, that our ancestors inhabited the wetlands is not.

Makgadikgadi salt pans in Northern Botswana was once a lake that spanned 80,000 to 275,00 square kilometers(18). It slowly started receding 2-4 million years ago when the earth moved, and the tectonic plates shifted, changing the course of the rivers that fed the lake. According to geologist Dr Andy Moore of the Rhodes University, “this would have created, a vast wetland, which is known to be one of the most productive ecosystems for sustaining life”(19). It is estimated that the lake only dried up in the last 10,000 years.

For most of the year now Makgadikgadi is a parched, shiny white desert where, fed by underground water only algae grow. The pans come into life in the rainy season (November to March). Water from Boteti and Nata rivers fill ponds and water holes and create a temporary grassland that draw wildlife from zebras to lions and elephants and a variety of birds to their ancient lands.

This picture was taken in Makgadikgadi pans in May 2019-soon the pans will go dry up and once again lifeless.

Where there is no water there is no life

Around the world, from Asia to the Americas, more and more communities are coming together to protect nature, following Professor Christopher D. Stone’s thesis that nature has rights, and those rights should be enforced by a court of law. This maybe our best chance to save humanity and nature in all its glory.

About the Author

Dr. Mahika Weerasekare is a synthetic organic, and analytical chemist with over 20 years of work in research and development. Her experience ranges from small molecular drug development to biomaterial synthesis. Dr. Weerasekare became interested in water chemistry while developing synthetic biopolymers that mimic natural underwater glues for use as water-borne surgical adhesives.



6., J. D. K., & Ruru, J. (2010). Giving voice to rivers: Legal personality as a vehicle for recognizing indigenous peoples' relationships to water? Australian Indigenous Law Review, 14(2), 49-62

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