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Rights for all the rivers and watercourses of Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, a country that has hundreds of increasingly polluted rivers, an unprecedented legal decision was taken at the beginning of July. The Supreme Court granted rights to all the country’s rivers as living beings, and gave them a legal character to better protect them.

An essential step for the rights of nature

The Court declared, ‘Water is certainly the most pressing environmental subject of the next century’, and called for waterways to be protected ‘whatever the price’. This decision follows a petition in 2016 and is part of the international movement in defence of the rights of nature that has already led to such decisions being take in New Zealand, India, Colombia and in the American State of Ohio. Up to now, the aim had been to protect only a specific river or lake and not all the watercourses of a country (cf a previous article published by IFGR). Its objective is to protect the world’s largest delta from new degradation caused by pollution, illegal dredging and other human activities. The Court appointed a new governmental agency, the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) as the legal guardian of the country’s rivers. In particular it could regulate certain highly pollutant industrial activities, by arguing recognition of rivers as legal entities.

How can the law be applied?

To deal with the degradation, or even the irremediable destruction of
nature, the attribution of rights to non-human entities could be an efficient way to protect the Nature but also protect all those who live in interaction and interdependence with it.
Still, we must rethink our relationship with nature and respect the spirit of the law. In Bangladesh, certain human rights defence associations are warning of the growing risk of driving away populations of poor fishermen and farmers, who live in shacks and depend on these rivers for their livelihoods. They number some 2.2 million. The aim is therefore to set up regulatory frameworks that take into account the entire ecosystem.

Another difficulty stems from the cross-border nature of three great rivers flowing from the Himalayas and which converge in Bangladesh before entering the Gulf of Bengal: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra  and the Meghna. The Bangladeshi government cannot oblige its neighbours, including India, to comply with the law.

To know more about the history of rights for nature, read the interview with Valérie Cabanes, an expert on international law, specialised in human rights and humanitarian rights, in the special issue of the Revue Reliefs devoted to rivers.

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