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Our great rivers in brief – September 2017

Changes in the legal status of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Whanganui

Last March, India and New Zealand granted certain of their sacred rivers the status of “living entity with the standing of a legal person”. The Whanganui in New Zealand and the Ganges and its tributary the Yumuna in India, were the rivers concerned by this major step forward.

So what changes does this status bring about? By being placed at the top of the legal hierarchy with respect to its right to protection, the river is entitled to repair in the case of voluntary damage. River guardians will be appointed to serve as the legal representatives of the river before the law. Since 1870, the Iwi, a Maori tribe, has asked for this status to preserve the River Whanganui, which is 170 km long.

Financial impacts and societal awareness

This choice represents a genuine ecological stance taken by the courts of justice in India and the New Zealand parliament. The Iwi tribe was then granted around €20 million to improve the state of the river. Another €52.2 million were paid to the Iwi by way of compensation for prejudices caused by past activities.

In India, the court is awaiting the empowerment of the population regarding the environment. As from July 2017, Brij Khandelwal, an active ecologist announced to the Indian police that the river Yumuna had been “murdered”. White foam produced by the saturation of chemical substances covered the river, creating an environment in which neither plants nor fish could survive, merely the most resistant bacteria. For all that, pollution does not prevent Hindus from plunging into the river to “purify” themselves.

This decision could give rise to changes in the law elsewhere in the world. In Australia, several Aboriginal groups have called for wide-ranging discussions on the Murray-Darling Basin. The river plays a major role in the cultural and economic life of these Indigenous communities. Consequently, the latter feel that it is legitimate to speak on behalf of the river and to defend it. However, up to now, the Murray Darling Basin management plan has not been able to adequately incompass the needs of  indigenous communities or the river itself, which has led these calls to put more significant resources, including political will, into protecting the river and the Indigenous peoples and cultures that it sustains.

Do rivers have the right to be rescued?

Protests against this new status were heard soon enough. In India, the State of Uttarakhand appealed to the Indian Supreme Court to denounce a “legally non-viable status”. Questions also remain with respect to its application: in the case of a trial, who would be charged with the responsibility of paying damages and interest?

Furthermore, this evolution does not solve the problems of governance that affect every river on the planet. Considerable sums of money have been invested in cleaning the Yamuna River since 1985, and the attention drawn by this issue is of great importance, politically, legally and in terms of the media. Public action, shared between twenty States and federal government agencies, still remains quite inefficient.

The predicted failure of the Murray Darling Basin Plan ?

Scientists agree in saying that no significant improvement has been made to the health of Australia’s largest hydrographic network, five years after the implementation of the Murray-Darling River management plan (MDBP). The MDBP is a historic bi-party agreement (between the States and the federal government) aimed at regulating water use in the basin.

A report by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, issued in June 2017, warned of the need carry out a major overhaul of the MDBP, failing which the plan would risk running aground. The volumes of water available do not permit protecting the key “environmental assets” identified by the plan. The report calls the public authorities associated with the MDBP to increase the volume of water dedicated to the environment by a third in order to improve the health of the river. It also underlines the negative socioeconomic impacts of this plan on a large number of urban communities. The scientists recommend that $600 million should be assigned to aid rural communities in difficulty. According to Dr Jamie Pittock, the main questions concern the independence of the surveys performed, the lack of control adapted to implementing the plan, the possible hoarding of water dedicated to the environment by certain political leaders, and the lack of constructive inter-state governance regarding the MDBP’s management.

A new socioeconomic report on the basin intended for the public authorities will be issued in December 2017 and it will be decisive for consolidating the environmental objectives.

Voices raise against the abusive use of chemical fertilisers in the Senegal river valley and delta

The National Federation for Organic Agriculture has blown the whistle to warn of this wide-spread practice in conventional farming in the Senegal River valley. At present, the agricultural production of the Senegal River only satisfies 15% of demand in the country. Most of the rice consumed is imported from Southeast Asia (80% of Senegal’s rice).

In order to become self-sufficient, producers are above all trying to accelerate the yields produced by conventional farming, since there is a lack of technically and financially sustainable solutions accessible to farmers. Concerns over health and the environment are often pushed into the background.

Besides the risks to both the health of consumers and the environment, the Federation has denounced the fact that conventional farm practices participate in degrading animal and plant biodiversity. A source of aggravation of climate warming, it also contributes from 12 to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The National Federation for Organic Agriculture (FNAB) wants to persuade the government and especially the peasants to turn to alternative agriculture to obtain similar yields. According to the FNAB, the monoculture of rice in the delta should be replaced by other types of crop better adapted to preserving the soil, now greatly degraded.

The Saint Lawrence: a boat sets sail on a mission to save the river

During summer 2017, researchers set out on a 1,000 kilometre journey along the Saint Lawrence River to understand the reasons why its state has deteriorated in recent years. The scientists on board the research boat of the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières, the Lampsilis, analysed the presence of discharges in the water, which include faecal coliforms from urban wastewater, pesticides and other products used in agriculture, and pharmaceutical compounds. The state of the river is changing very quickly so this mission is crucial for the future, as the data collected will be used as the basis for informed decision-making.

Financial aid amounting to $110,000 has been allocated to the mission by the Réseau Québec Maritime, a structure set up in 2016 and funded by the government of Quebec. In addition, the latter has also granted $1.8 million to missions carried out on the boat in its latest budget.

The Mekong Delta: numerous challenges linked to climate change

A conference was held on 14 July 2017 at Can Tho in Vietnam on solutions to climate change in the Mekong Delta. It was organised in Vietnam by the Ministry of Planning and Investment and the World Bank. The region is currently suffering from drought, salt infiltration, a lack of freshwater and floods. The industrialisation of the country, its limited transport system and random urbanisation, are all problems that further exacerbate the situation. In addition, a lack of coordination between the areas of the delta slows the application of responses to climate change.

The former Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment emphasised the need for development plans to take the new challenges represented by the climate into account. The former Vice-Minsiter of Agriculture and Rural Development also insisted on problems linked to the construction of hydropower plants on the Mekong and the exploitation of groundwater and sand.

He spoke of the importance of building a series of locks on the rivers Tien and Hau in order to control their discharges and reduce flood risks. It is also necessary to consider types of agriculture that make better use of the land by studying new varieties adapted to climate change and which require less water, for example.

In parallel the Tam Dao Days were held from 7 to 15 July at the University of Can Tho. Organised around the theme “Rivers and deltas in Southeast Asia”, this summer university proposed training in social science analysis methodology to researchers, students and public and private actors in Southeast Asia.

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