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A Magazine for Sheffield

What if we gave the River Don legal rights?

Campaigners say this radical idea could not only help clean up the river, but change our relationship with it entirely.

River Don at Sheffield geograph org uk 2884653

The River Don at Lady's Bridge.

Paul Gillett on Wikimedia Commons.

“Humans have agency and voice, and that voice can be interpreted, that voice can be heard. But when we're talking about non-human actors, there is no representation, there is no voice. The premise of this is about creating some kind of framework that could facilitate for non-human actors to have their voice heard in one way or another.”

Alban Krashi of the River Dôn Project is explaining to me what first got him interested in the burgeoning rights of nature movement.

The basic premise of the movement is that our planet’s non-human actors – from animals and plants all the way up to mountains, rivers and entire ecosystems – should have their own legal status, and that this would help protect and enhance them in the same way that human rights protect people.

This could, for example, allow a solicitor to represent a river’s interests in court. This could be to stop a big corporation polluting a river, or to intervene at a national level when new policy is drawn up that will have a detrimental impact on a river.

Alban points to dozens of examples around the world where legal rights for natural entities like rivers and mountains have been fought for – and won. These range from countries as diverse as Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, India, New Zealand and even the United States.

From surviving to thriving

Now the River Dôn Project, which is hosted by Opus Independents who also publish Now Then, want to bring the idea to South Yorkshire. They’ve partnered with a range of organisations including both Sheffield universities, as well as the Don Catchment Rivers Trust, Dark Matter Labs, Data for Good, Lawyers For Nature and the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre, to explore the feasibility of winning legal rights for the Don in what would be a UK first.

The selection of the Don is partly practical and partly symbolic. In part due to Sheffield’s status as an industrial powerhouse, the river was an ecological disaster zone for well over a century. The Don Catchment Rivers Trust describe the river during that period as “ecologically dead”, while according to the University of Sheffield it had the dubious honour of being one of Europe’s most polluted rivers in the 1980s.

Since then, the state of the river has steadily improved, partly due to the dramatic collapse of heavy industry in the city that kicked into gear in the mid 1980s. With the installation of a series of ‘fish passages’ on weirs along the length of the river, salmon have started spawning in Sheffield for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

But the Don Catchment Rivers Trust say there is “still lots of work to be done” to restore the Don to its natural state – to transition from surviving to thriving – and the recent sewage scandals have spotlighted the damage that is still being done to our rivers on a near daily basis.

Storm overflow

Over the past few years, the longstanding issue of water pollution in UK rivers has made a surprise move into the political mainstream. Stories of sewage spills, chronic underinvestment and corporate excess are a daily fixture in newspapers across the UK, both local and national, and the sense of outrage is palpable.

England and Wales are the only countries in the world to have a fully privatised water system. This means that revenue from household water bills which could be reinvested in improving the network and reducing sewage spills into UK rivers is funnelled to private investors through dividends.

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Alban Krashi says the idea could create a "framework for non-human actors to have their voice heard"

Sewage spills occur when excess rainwater fills the drainage network to capacity and household waste water that should be sent to a treatment works is discharged straight into the river. These overspills are only supposed to be used in rare emergencies, but due to underinvestment in the UK’s crumbling infrastructure, they are a daily occurrence in most parts of the UK.

Data from The Rivers Trust shows there were 2,490 sewage spills directly into the River Don in 2022, lasting for a staggering 9,847 hours – around 1,000 more hours than there are in a whole year. If we widen this to include the River Rother, its tributaries and the tributaries of the River Don, this increases to 12,960 spills for a total duration of 55,528 hours.

“There is not one river in England in good ecological condition – every single one is being slowly poisoned by sewage,” clean water campaigner and former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey told The Mirror two years ago. “It is a shocking state of affairs.” Little has changed since then.

Externalities

The economic models that have existed since the late 18th century have not incorporated impacts on the environment as part of their depiction of the economy. Instead, these factors are described as ‘externalities’. The IMF neatly defines an externality as “what happens when prices do not fully capture costs”.

For example, when a car manufacturer builds a diesel vehicle, they do not have to factor into their production costs the negative effects of the air pollution that the car will go on to create, in the same way that they have to factor in the costs of raw materials like steel.

As awareness of global climate breakdown has increased over the past decades, various governments have put in place policies and regulations to try to mitigate these externalities. For example, London’s newly-expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone is designed to counterbalance the fact that car manufacturers do not have to factor air pollution into their production costs.

When it comes to Britain’s rivers, such interventions might include forcing companies to obtain permits to discharge wastewater directly into the river, or asking anglers to fish in certain parts of the river.

But by their very nature, these policies are piecemeal and do not fundamentally alter the balance of power between large corporations and the natural environment they extract their raw materials from.

“The rights of nature project highlights the costs that have previously gone uncalculated,” Alban tells me. “If companies had to calculate their impact on the environment and factor that into their costs, a lot would find that they’re no longer viable.”

A trickle into a flood

Since its conception in US academia in the 1970s, the idea of nature rights has increasingly gained currency around the world. These campaigns are often led by Indigenous peoples who have long seen the natural world around them exploited for profit.

In the United States in 2006, Tamaqua Borough became the first municipality in the country to enshrine rights for nature within local law, allowing residents to bring lawsuits against companies that damage the local environment. Any awarded damages are ring-fenced for ecosystem restoration.

In New Zealand, Māori communities have successfully initiated a series of legal designations for nature, starting with the government recognising the Te Urewera park, the ancestral home of the Tūhoe people, as a legal person in 2014. This was followed by the Whanganui River in 2017 and Mount Taranaki – a 120,000 year-old stratovolcano sacred to the Māori – in 2018.

But what do these legal designations mean on the ground? For the Māori, who live along the banks of the Whanganui and see it as sacred, “having the river recognised as a legal person means harming it is the same as harming the tribe.” If companies pollute, or put forward plans that threaten to pollute the river’s waters, the river itself can sue.

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The River Don at Sprotborough.

PJMarriott on Wikimedia Commons.

The practicalities of this principle vary from case to case, and from country to country. In the case of the Te Urewera park, New Zealand’s government has handed over day-to-day management of the land to a new board mostly made up of members of the Tūhoe community, along with a few government representatives.

While citizens of South Yorkshire may not see the Don as sacred in the same way, many still feel a deep connection to it. The circumflex in the River Dôn Project’s name (the small symbol over the ‘o’) is a nod to the Celtic mother goddess Dôn, which has the same etymological origin as the river.

Dualism

The legal recognition of the Whanganui was the culmination of a 160-year battle between the Māori and the New Zealand government over legal protection for the 180-mile long river. And it’s a dispute that reveals two profoundly different ways of seeing the world and our place in it as human beings.

For hundreds of years, western philosophy has promoted the idea that we as humans are separate from and superior to the natural world. This is known as ‘dualism’, and it is still deeply embedded in the way we talk about our planet and protecting the environment.

But for many other peoples humans are inseparable from the natural world, part of a dense web of interdependencies between the plants, animals, rivers, mountains and ecosystems around us. “I am the river, the river is me,” goes a Māori saying about the Whanganui.

The idea of ‘dualities’ directly follows on to the economic concept of ‘externalities’. The clue is in the name: this is a world-view that sees the natural world as being external to us as humans, and to human affairs, such as the economy. Seeing a river as being somehow ‘other’ to us as humans allows you to pollute it or extract resources from it without consequence.

“What fascinates me so much about the rights of nature movement is that if you can establish a framework that protects vulnerable non-human agents, can those same agents then go on to protect us humans from climate change?” says Alban.

“If it’s as simple as constructing a dataset that highlights the reality of our river, the amount of pollution for example or the consequences of agriculture… if we can just name that reality, that facilitates the opportunity for that environment to have its voice heard because we can no longer turn a blind eye.”

For Alban, and the rest of the collaborators on the River Dôn Project, the next stage would be to use this data to feed into decision-making that affects the river. “We can model the future consequences and impacts on the river from current decisions,” he says.

What would it look like?

I ask Alban what tangible changes the citizens of South Yorkshire would see in and around the river if the River Dôn Project is successful and the Don becomes the first natural entity to obtain legal status in the UK.

“I think one of the first visible changes is that we would have a healthier relationship with our local environment,” he tells me. “By that I mean that we would revisit ideas of stewardship, and we would revisit our relationship with the natural world.”

“Part of that would be upskilling members of the local community to become citizen scientists. So they’ll be monitoring the health of the river, or the amount of birds and river flies that are a good indicator of the river’s health.”

“I think what we’d like to see as a tangible outcome is local communities conducting citizen science, and through that a reconnection with the environment and a recognition that we are incredibly interconnected,” he continues.

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