River Ethiope Could Be First Waterway in Africa Recognized as a Living Entity

©. Earth Law Center

The rivers in Nigeria are not having an easy time of it. None of them, as in zero, meet the water quality standard set by the World Health Organization (WHO) – the country has one of the worst river degradation conditions of any nation on the planet. Not only is this dire for the rivers themselves, but for the humans who depend on them, as well as the inland and coastal ecosystems with which the rivers interact.

Of Nigeria’s rivers, River Ethiope stands out. It is believed to be the deepest inland waterway in Africa. Not only does it serve as a sacred site for many, but local communities rely upon it for drinking, bathing, fishing, medicine, and other gentle uses. Sadly, the river has been abused as well, thanks to industrial contamination, oil spills, solid waste disposal, pollution from agricultural byproducts like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and general overuse.

While efforts to help the river have been going on for years, River Ethiope just can’t seem to get ahead. But now, maybe her time has come.

Earth Law Center and the River Ethiope Trust Foundation (RETFON) have launched an initiative to establish legal rights for this special river. If successful, the River Ethiope would be the first waterway in Africa to be recognized as a living entity.

As noted in a press release for the initiative,

Amongst the rights sought for the River Ethiope are rights to be free from pollution, to restoration, to native biodiversity, and others. The River would also have standing to be heard as a party in a court of law. Finally, one or more guardians would be appointed to enforce its rights.
River Ethiope

© Earth Law Center

“It is our sincere desire to achieve permanent sustainability for Nigeria’s rivers,” says Irikefe Dafe, President and Founder of RETFON. “Such a desire, however, can only be realized with the effort and cooperation of everyone. It is for this reason that we are advocating for a joint effort to combat pollution and other river harms, which are peculiar not only to Nigeria but also the world.”

While it would be the first waterway in Africa to earn legal rights, there is an increasing number of rivers around the world that have already secured the status. Earth Law Center notes that New Zealand’s Whanganui River is recognized as a “legal person” and has rights. Meanwhile, Colombia’s Atrato River possesses inherent rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration.”

On a similar note, Ecuador and Bolivia recognize that nature has rights – and why shouldn’t it? Just because we don’t understand the language it speaks doesn’t mean we should squander it to the point of no return. Who gave humans that right? And it's a sentiment that is gaining increasing momentum.

“Establishing legal rights for rivers and other natural systems is the next great rights-based movement,” says Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney at Earth Law Center. “I believe that the rights of all major rivers will be recognized in the next 20 years, resulting in their permanent restoration.”

To be honest, it can't come a minute too soon.