From River Rejuvenation to River Rights: Need for a Broader Perspective

By Philippe Cullet

“On the one hand, everyone has a fundamental right to water, and as long as surface or groundwater from the catchment area of these rivers is used to supply water unfit for consumption, this would amount to a breach of this right. On the other hand, everyone has a duty to contribute to rejuvenating and restoring rivers and lakes. This includes individual behaviour, such as not throwing garbage in the open.”

The need for rejuvenating lakes and rivers is increasingly widely discussed. This is a welcome step in a context where human activities are causing increasing damage to freshwater ecosystems on which nature and humankind are dependent for their survival. This rejuvenation speaks to a process of ecological restoration, which reflects an understanding that ecosystems can cope with human presence as long as this is in a symbiotic relationship. Where human activities disrupt the balance, restoration is the process that seeks to give a chance to ecosystems to recover from negative human impacts.

River rejuvenation,
restoration and beyond
In the case of ‘Cleanliness of Umiam Lake’, the Meghalaya High Court has aptly emphasised the need for rejuvenating water bodies (ST, 28.6.22, p.1). Similarly, the River Rejuvenation Committee has focused on the restoration of Wah Umkhrah and Wah Umshyrpi, whose status is ‘not satisfactory’ (https://megspcb.gov.in/mth_waterquality.html). Yet, it is not clear that the proposed measures go far enough to ensure the goals that they set for themselves.
Starting with the action plans for rejuvenating Wah Umkhrah and Wah Umshyrpi, there is an underlying sense of despair that runs through the proposed measures. Thus, the premise is that these rivers cannot be restored to the standards of ‘outdoor bathing’ because they pass through congested and densely populated localities.
This should act as a wake-up call. On the one hand, everyone has a fundamental right to water, and as long as surface or groundwater from the catchment area of these rivers is used to supply water unfit for consumption, this would amount to a breach of this right. On the other hand, everyone has a duty to contribute to rejuvenating and restoring rivers and lakes. This includes individual behaviour, such as not throwing garbage in the open. This also includes duties of the government, such as the need to comply with all relevant stipulations, for instance, concerning the need to set up treatment plants, and to enforce environmental protection measures against all polluters.
None of this is new. At the same time, the situation is worsening. This indicates that the path followed until now is not commensurate with the challenges faced. Too often, the focus is on the immediately visible pollution, such as plastic floating in rivers or lakes. This emphasis is a good way to make everyone aware of the problem and it is a genuine issue that needs to be addressed. At the same time, this should not lead to sidelining the more intractable issues that are at the root of the catastrophic situation unfolding.
For a start, it is crucial to address pollution effectively. In a city that has limited sewerage network, the first need may be operationalising faecal sludge treatment plants (which can treat the sludge from septic tanks). Further, effective and universal waste segregation could go some way in addressing some of the existing problems. Such steps are important but remain framed within a narrow understanding of the challenges that need to be addressed.
What is much more important is to avoid and reduce pollution. This implies rethinking the kind of economy that has led to the current crisis. It is relatively easy to accept that climate change is the big evil that needs to be fought. Yet, this seems to imply that this problem is so vast that it cannot be grasped and tackled at the local or state level. In fact, anthropogenic climate change is but the sum of environmental harms caused to the planet by human societies that have emphasised for decades economic growth as the only way to foster environmental protection and social equity. The concept of sustainable development, which has embodied the way in which the world wants to move forward since the late 1980s has clearly failed in its endeavour. The root problem is that sustainable development is premised on economic growth as the driver of a better society.
Turning back to rivers and lakes, the emphasis on economic growth as the basis for protecting the environment has meant that an increasing amount of pollution has been caused. In certain cases, like Wah Umkhrah and Wah Umshyrpi, little has been done to address the consequences of this pollution, hence there is now talk of ‘restoring’ these rivers. This indicates a complete failure of the existing way of thinking about the environment, where ever more pollution is seen as a necessary condition for a better society, and addressing the pollution always comes as an after-thought. This is in large part because everyone seems to base their own decisions (from individuals to corporations and the state) on the idea that we have a right to use nature, even if there is an ultimate limit to that right.
Rights for rivers
One of the new ways of thinking around rivers and lakes is to recognize them has holders of rights. This frames the conversation in a completely different format. Instead of only talking about the rights that humans have in relation to nature, this acknowledges that we must recognise the rights that nature itself holds. In this perspective, the discussion starts from the need to ensure that all needs of the concerned freshwater ecosystem are taken into account when considering new human activities that may affect it. This implies, for instance, that the understanding of the needs of rivers is not limited to the river itself but takes into account the whole catchment area.
This river rights discourse is now well understood in policy circles. Indeed, the Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal from the Uttarakhand High Court decision declaring Ganga and Yamuna as living persons, in other words legal entities with rights. The underlying ideas in this judgment need to be urgently implemented throughout Meghalaya.
The idea of river rights has been implemented in various countries and often involves recognising that the people who have protected and managed the river are best placed to take a lead on operationalising river rights. This is exactly what multiple communities have done in Meghalaya for centuries in successfully protecting and managing their rivers, forests and more generally natural resources. The idea of river rights is about recognising these existing frameworks and strengthening them. It is also about an idea of river management that starts at the local level and trusts local wisdom. This is in opposition to the top-down system that has been the hallmark of protection and/or restoration frameworks until now.
That this conversation is needed in a state that is also known for the cleanest river in Asia (Wah Umngot) is sobering. Unlike in many other parts of the country, Meghalaya can still avoid the need to ‘restore’ rivers by ensuring that human activities do not adversely affect them. This is also a duty of a mostly upstream state towards communities relying on the same water sources downstream. Rivers do not recognise administrative or international boundaries. This confirms the need to treat them as entities that have rights, rather than as resources to be used and abused by humans.
The author is Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi & Professor of Environmental Law, SOAS University of London Email: [email protected]

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