Like Ganga and Yamuna, Australian rivers should be given rights of a legal person

By: Mark Pearson, MLC Parliament of New South Wales.

Following the precedent set by India which granted personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers and New Zealand with the Whanganui River, a bill introduced in NSW Parliament by Mark Pearson, establishes the river as a ‘legal person’ with rights that can be enforced by guardians representing the Indigenous communities that have lived alongside and cared for the river over millennia. 

Earlier this year, Mr. Pearson introduced a bill into NSW state parliament that if passed, would give legal personhood to the Murray-Darling River system. The river system has suffered from years of over-exploitation by irrigators, which has caused the deterioration of water quality and flow.

The Hon. Mark PEARSON, MLC - Parliament of NSW

The Hon. Mark PEARSON, MLC – Parliament of NSW

1. Where did the idea for giving personhood to a river come from? Where had you seen it before?

The idea first came to me around two years ago when I was visiting Yuin Elder Uncle Max Gulumunmun Harrison and we were standing at the Barwon River near Moree. He was talking about the river being a “being” to his community. Later, I heard about both a river in Nicaragua and a river in New Zealand being given personhood.

I have been to India five times and I have travelled down the Ganges River. I was down with the people on the shore as they were drinking the water and washing and blessing themselves in the water at sunrise. Given its a protected river, the people also feel protected. The fact rivers are basically the lifeline of all of us, I could see that then, and how the people of India live with nature and respect the rivers more than many other countries. That’s probably why they’re one of the first countries in the world that has a river that’s been granted personhood.

2. Why is it important for entire ecosystems have to have rights, compared to the individual animals in those ecosystems?

I don’t think ecosystems and individuals are separate. All the animals in an area at some stage will interact with that river system, and a river doesn’t actually end, in a sense. All liquid and particles of all manner all around the land will eventually move towards a river. It’s all interconnected. There’s no animal, no living thing, without the river. That’s why it’s so important to give a river personhood, so we can then argue that everything that is thriving and connected to the river should also be protected by that wing of inclusiveness which rivers represent.

3. How do you can see this changing how ecosystems are managed in Australia? Who benefits? 

Giving rivers personhood would afford them the protection that they do not currently have. There are a whole lot of various legislation that are meant to protect rivers and ecosystems, but greed, business, agribusiness and industries which want to use the land can wriggle around these things and put pressure on governments to change legislation and codes. But once a river has personhood and guardianship, any use of that river would then need to be first presented to the Indigenous guardians of that river, who control its use and protect it from harm.

4. At what stage of the process are you at, and what happens next?

First we must visit New Zealand to talk to the guardians of the river there, so we understand profoundly what the whole process is. Then we can come back to Australia and talk to the Indigenous Nations which the Murray-Darling River runs through to see if they would like to initiate this visionary project. If that happens, we can introduce the bill to NSW Parliament and debate will begin and a vote held.

If you support Mark Pearson’s efforts to give Australian rivers person-hood, please call or email your local NSW MP to support Mark Pearson’s River personhood bill.

You are also welcome to write your support to Mark Pearson at

About the Author, Mark Pearson.

Mark Pearson is the first elected representative of the Animal Justice Party (AJP) in the NSW Parliament and sits on the Legislative Council. The AJP recognizes the sentience of all animals and seeks to protect animals and the environment from harm.

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