Repairing our Relationship with Rivers: Water Law and Legal Personhood


Since 2017, rivers around the world have experienced a profound transformation in law: they have become legal persons, legal subjects, living persons, and/or living entities. This alchemical transfiguration from legal object to legal subject renders the river uniquely visible, and legible, to the law in ways it has not been before, and often brings with it new legal rights and powers. In this presentation, I ask what this transformation means for water law, and what the implications are for established water law frameworks. To date, the impact on water law has been relatively minor: new river persons have never yet received any legal rights to the water flowing between their banks. But their existence challenges the foundational assumption of Western water law: that water is merely a resource, capable of exploitation for human consumption. These new river entities demonstrate the power of law as a mode of repair, and create an opportunity to repair and restore our relationship with rivers. So far, water law has maintained its distance from this emerging transnational concept, but this position is becoming increasingly untenable. When a river is a living entity, or a legal person, the question for all water scholars and practitioners becomes: what does it mean to be in good relations with the river?



Law, legal personhood, legal persons, subjects of rights, living entities, living beings, water law, rivers, relationships