Rights for the River

Sustainable and safe oceans and inland waterways

Rosa Guamán, peasant-indigenous water justice leader at Licto’s Chambo River, Ecuador. Photo: Rutgerd Boelens

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Increasingly, ordinary members of the public want a say in the management of water resources and they are organising themselves to achieve this. Together with his European colleagues, Wageningen professor Rutgerd Boelens will be investigating the role such citizens' initiatives can play in the management of rivers.

Stichting Stop Afvalwater Twente is a foundation campaigning to stop the Dutch petroleum company NAM from injecting wastewater into the ground in Twente, a region in the Eastern Netherlands. The wastewater comes from oil drilling in Drenthe. The foundation fears that the chemicals in the wastewater will pose a risk for drinking water production and could harm the ecologically significant Dinkel river. “Stichting Stop Afvalwater Twente has been campaigning for seven years, but this issue achieved nationwide fame when Herman Finkers (a Dutch comedian ed.) talked about it on television”, says Rutgerd Boelens. He is a professor holding a personal chair in Water Governance & Social Justice at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and holding an endowed chair in the Political Ecology of Water in Latin America at the University of Amsterdam. He sees the Twente foundation as a typical example of the New Water Justice Movements (NWJMs): initiatives taken by citizens who feel responsible for the water in their locality and want to be involved in decisions about it. According to Boelens, there are countless such local water conflicts all over the world, where for example farmers, villagers and indigenous communities are fighting for more of a say in water management.

Conflicts between citizens and the government

For decades, Boelens has been involved in water projects ranging from drinking water systems to studies of water rights in Latin America and Europe. These projects often involve opposing interests, with government bodies and companies on one side and local people on the other. One example is the ‘water war’ in Bolivia, where the inhabitants of the city of Cochabamba rose up against the privatisation of the water boards as it would have meant a 300 per cent increase in the price of water for urban districts and local villages.

Riverine salt harvesting in Salinas, Ecuador. Photo: Rutgerd Boelens

Canal operator Nancy Sanchez is opening the water intake, Tarapoto, Peru. Photo: Rutgerd Boelens

After a struggle, the national authority capitulated and the privatisation plans were abandoned. The Bolivian government had to pay millions of dollars in damages to the American buyer. “Water rights are always about power,” says Boelens, “and that issue of power – who wins, who loses and how the rewards are divided – is a key theme of my work.”

The state of being a river

Now the professor is turning his attention to rivers and how power issues play out there. Boelens recently secured a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for the Riverhood project. He came across the English term ‘riverhood’ in an encyclopaedia. “It turns out to be a nineteenth-century concept that means ‘the state of being a river’. That is what I want to investigate because I don’t see a river as just a lot of flowing water.”

According to Boelens, you need a range of disciplines to study the status of the river because so many groups are involved in the management and use of rivers. “Political ecology is an interdisciplinary field with sociologists, anthropologists, hydrologists, social geographers and agriculturalists. We study power relationships in the management of natural resources, policy, the allocation of natural resources and knowledge about these natural resources.” Boelens carries out this research with his WUR colleagues Jeroen Vos and Lena Hommes, as well as PhD students and an extensive network of partners.

Ecological management

The Riverhood project includes eight rivers in Colombia, Ecuador and Spain. In the Netherlands, the rivers Maas, Berkel and Wantij will be studied. Boelens thinks the Netherlands could learn a lot from these southern countries, as people there have been thinking about river management in numerous creative ways. The Make the Maas the Boss project and the Wantij Foundation are innovative grassroots initiatives in river co-governance and they are keen to learn from the experiences of similar initiatives in Latin America.

River Commons is an integrated "twin"-research programme of Riverhood, aiming to explore the opportunities of river co-governance. Video by: Makmende global media production/ Water Resources Management chair group

While Riverhood is still in the early stages, Boelens has a clear vision of what the project should lead to. “Forms of river management that are based on respect of the human community for the natural environment, in which citizens are involved in and responsible for the management of the river.” More specifically, he is interested in how rivers can be managed in a more sustainable, socially equitable and environmentally responsible way and how NWJMs can help.

Four windows on the river

The Water Governance & Social Justice professor wants to investigate and analyse rivers from various perspectives. To do this, he has developed four ‘windows’: the river as a socio-ecological community, the river as a territory, the river as a movement and the river as a subject. Boelens: “The first window – the river as a socio-ecological community – is about how humans cohabit with the river. Fishing communities, for example, live off and with the water. So the river is simultaneously both an ecological system and a social system.”

Water rights are always about power, and power is the key theme of my work
In the past, the focus was on social justice whereas now it is all about ecological justice

The art of indigenous zigzag-furrow irrigation (‘canterones’) in Chumug San Francisco, Ecuador. Photo: Rutgerd Boelens

In the second window – the river as a territory – the focus is on areas where the authority to manage the water is important but also contested. For example, farmers may use a river as a source for irrigation while a mining company sees the river as a reservoir for coolant water. These can be conflicting interests. Boelens: “Who ultimately determines what happens to the river? The party that makes the most noise or has the most money?” The river as a movement is the third window. This is about the river as a source for social movements, such as the NWJMs in various countries that campaign for water quality, in favour of or against a dam, for a meandering course or for fish ladders. The third window – the river as a movement – is perhaps the most challenging one. The fourth window – the river as a subject with personhood – is an internationally much debated topic. Boelens: “When I was a student, the focus was on social justice whereas now it is all about ecological justice. Because of the current worldwide ecological crises, society is calling for a new approach to nature. I want to investigate what it means if a river is treated as a legal, political and moral entity.”

The river as a legal entity

Rivers are already more or less a legal entity in some countries. In New Zealand, the Māori people managed to get the sacred Whanganui River recognised as a legal entity. They were given joint management of the river together with the local government. And in Colombia, the court ruled in 2017 that the extensive pollution of the Atrato River violated not only the rights of the many indigenous communities that depend on the river but also the rights of the river itself. At the time this was a revolutionary judgment, but it has not yet led to any improvements in this country plagued by internal conflicts. It has also been suggested that the Ganges in India should become a legal entity. “The conservative, nationalistic Hindu government says that the Ganges has rights, but because they see it as a Hindu river they are thereby sidelining hundreds of thousands of Indian Muslims who also use the Ganges.” According to Boelens, the Ganges as a legal entity may be misused for political purposes. “That makes me wonder whether you can in fact institutionalise the river as a legal entity in the same way everywhere. Who is authorised to represent the river in court? Is that the environmental movement, the state or citizens? This is much more than just a legal question. Moral, political, ecological and technological dimensions are all intertwined with what makes a river a river. We will be investigating all of this over the next few years.”

European research context

Riverhood addresses the following European policy challenge: The Water Framework Directive, a European framework directive for efficient water management and clean water in European rivers Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Water Resources Management, Cultural Geography, Hydrology & Quantitative Water Management, Education & Learning Sciences, Aquaculture & Fisheries and Aquatic Ecology & Water Quality Management European and other countries involved: Colombia, Ecuador, the Netherlands and Spain Duration: 2021 – 2026

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