“Legal Rights of Rivers: a voice given to rivers”- to what extent can we really hear the cry of rivers?

Kazi Israt Jahan | 18 August 2023
No image

Bangladesh, as a riverine country, depends vastly upon the Rivers and Waterbodies of the country economically. From Fisheries, Agriculture to transport in every sector we depend on the Rivers. But where have the historical glamor and appeal of the rivers descended now?  Shrinked in width by invasive encroachers and fused with poisonous polluters, they have been on the verge of disappearing, Especially the rivers Turag, Bangshi, Buriganga and other rivers surrounding Dhaka city. 

In recent years, Bangladesh has started taking initiatives to protect and conserve all the rivers and the first milestone was set by the High Court of Bangladesh in the rule of 2019 Writ petition of Turag River Judgement. The High Court declared all the Rivers of Bangladesh as “Living Entity” and gave them the legal rights to protect themselves. 

An extensive article published in The Daily Star newspaper regarding the state of the Turag river from 2013 to 2016 and other public dialogues such as the 4th International Water Conference – entitled ‘River: A Living Being’ – organized by ActionAid Bangladesh, held in late January 2019 has paved the way for the writ petition. The High court provided a detailed list of 17 derivatives to protect the Rivers which also included a detailed instruction in building awareness through Educational, Industrial and Municipal administration.These derivatives didn’t stop at penalties and punishments of the polluters and encroacher of rivers, but also barring them from getting loans from the bank. Later, The Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the verdict of the High Court ensuring legal rights of the rivers within the country. 

Bangladesh relies on River waters for agricultural, industrial and even domestic use but the water of the most rivers have barely stayed in usable condition. Recent studies show that in the past 40 years, the peripheral rivers of the major cities like Buriganga and Karnafuli have been extremely polluted (Uddin, M. J., & Jeong, Y.-K., 2021). But the alarming effect of that pollution is the bioaccumulation of metal which means the micro particles of metal consumed by the organisms like fish as well as crops through irrigation that ultimately enter our everyday food intake. The daily intake of the contaminated foodstuff can cause serious health injuries in time.

The effects of pollution are severe but what will be of our country if there are no rivers left at all. The river encroachers are making sure to see to that matter. River lands are being filled with new factories, industry and agricultural purposes but what is popular around Dhaka is the brand new model towns and real estate. The river floodplains around the city are supposed to remain undeveloped for the protection of Dhaka city which is clearly not being maintained. Resulting in monsoon flood water finding its way into the cityscape as in the water logging issue of the city was not already enough. 

Giving the title of a “living entity” to all the rivers of Bangladesh will surely be the legal aid for the rivers to survive. The concept of granting legal rights to nonhuman entities is not new, though its application in conserving nature is very recent. Ecuador and Bolivia have granted Mother Nature its legal rights. India and New Zealand have granted legal rights to specific two to three rivers of their country. But, Bangladesh is the first to grant all the rivers within the country their legal rights, a well suited measure for a riverine land. 

The purpose of these laws is to give nature the ability to file a lawsuit to defend its own interests and to give nature itself a standing in law. Even though the environmental laws existed from long before, their emphasis was rather on the public use of natural resources rather than protection of nature itself (Preston, 2005). The way out of this ambiguity is now recognised as one of environmental law's major challenges. 

Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 (Amendment 2010) has made proper sludge management and installation of Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) in all Industries  mandatory before releasing industrial wastewater into the rivers. And still how much of the protection the rivers are actually getting becomes visible in the recent studies. A recent study on “Urban river pollution in Bangladesh during last 40 years: potential public health and ecological risk, present policy, and future prospects toward smart water management” says that the peripheral rivers of Dhaka and Chattogram City are extremely polluted due to urban waste and industrial effluents. The pollutants flowing with water cause severe pollution in downstream rivers. The Buriganga being totally uninhabitable for any living creature due to lack of dissolved oxygen and increasing metal concentrations in the water, sediments of the other urban rivers injecting metal into our food chain.

We can still hope to overcome these challenges through proper application of the environmental laws and legal rights of the rivers. But, proper management of these waters are not entirely in our hands. 

Two main approaches in managing the water resources and rivers are Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) and The Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) both require joint assessment of the transboundary rivers and sharing data among neighboring countries.

There's a number of transboundary rivers including the major rivers that require coordination with the neighboring country. In most of these cases, Bangladesh is downstream and India having both the upstream waters and first to develop the water resources has far more disproportionate control over the rivers.

Poisonous untreated wastewater flowing down through the transboundary rivers from different states of India. People of   Akhaura, Brahmanbaria have long been suffering from the poisonous polluted water coming down from Agartala, Tripura through Jaji river and other canals causing health issues and harming fisheries and agriculture as the soil productivity declines.

Being of religious significance, the levels of fecal coliform bacteria from human waste accumulates in Ganges near Varanasi, India (Source: wikipedia). The severe pollution poses a danger not only to humans but also to animals.They have failed to clean the water of Ganges which in its downstream flows in our country in the name of Padma.  

The river disputes between India and Bangladesh are not recent at all. Sharing water and water resources between the countries seems to be an unfamiliar concept to our neighboring country. No agreement on sharing water resources has seen the light yet the effluents still flow down in our rivers untreated. 

Now the question still remains whether the legal actions taken to protect all rivers in Bangladesh can bring any notable change in the big picture. Challenges still remain in quantifying the damages done to the rivers. To properly implement the laws on the polluters, calculating the losses the river has faced is crucial. Decision makers have to know the total damages that have been caused and label them as endangered based on them. Sometimes the true cost of the impacts of pollution may be underestimated. 

If the injuries to rivers are not recognised in court they can not be compensated. The true cost of poor water quality can not be quantified only by doing the sum of costs necessary to improve water quality by standard and loss in agriculture, fisheries production. The damage done to the ecosystem and rivers' health and well-being are not just economic but in the long run humanity will have to face a cost far greater than this.

Kazi Israt Jahan is a Research Intern at the Centre for Governance Studies.

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy. 


  • 28 Aug 2023, 07:03 PM

    Thanks for writing an informative article on our rivers. Dr. Manjur Chowdhury Chairman Centre for Governance Studies