The River is a Person: a postcard from Melbourne
In January I moved to Melbourne, Australia. After two weeks of unpacking boxes and reassembling furniture I jumped on a bike to explore my new neighbourhood. Coasting downhill, I soon found my way to the Merri Creek[i].
Rivers and streams form immutable pathways through cities. Landscapes slope along catchment lines, industries line up along sources of water and trade routes, and parks, trails and restored ecosystems provide respite and recreation. Despite efforts to control and erase urban waterways by covering them over, turning them into sewers and burying them beneath streets, rivers remain.
For much of the twentieth century the Merri was a polluted, neglected creek. In recent decades industrial closures and ecological revitalisation have meant that it is now a much loved, and needed, green space for walking, cycling and simply lazing about. On my bike ride I recognised images from conference presentations by the engineers involved in its renewal.
The Merri is a tributary of Birrarung, the river that flows through the lands of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation. The colonial word for Birrarung is the Yarra, named by a nineteenth century surveyor who heard local people talking about the water ‘flowing’ over a waterfall, and mistakenly took their description as the name of the river (Otto, 2005).
Birrarung is a living entity. The Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 (Vic) recognises this reality in the white Australian legal system. The Act created the Birrarung Council, the ‘independent voice of the Yarra’. The Council includes Wurundjeri Woi Worrung elders, representatives of farmers and environmental groups, community groups and people with specialist knowledge. Their mission is to champion the interests of the river as ‘one living and integrated natural entity’. Their job is to create a vision and a strategic plan for the river, and respond on its behalf to policy and development proposals.
Birrarung is one of a handful of rivers now legally recognised as living beings (Eckstein et al., 2019). Other jurisdictions have gone further, declaring rivers to be ‘legal persons’. Legal persons, like corporations, have rights and standing in court. They can bring legal proceedings to enforce their rights. In 2017 a High Court in India declared the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers and all their tributaries to be ‘legal persons’. National legislation in New Zealand in 2014 declared the Whanganui River, and all its ‘physical and metaphysical elements’ to be a legal person. The Atrato River in Colombia was recognised by the Constitutional Court as a legal person in 2016. Birrarung is not a legal person, merely a living being. Its Council can speak for the river, but can’t take its transgressors to court.
As I follow the Merri to Birrarung, and learn more about this new legal recognition of ancient truths, I think back to Old Father Thames. Long remembered in folklore, art, music and activism, the River Thames has its own distinct personality, liveliness and agency (Brown, 2017). Recognising the Thames as ‘one living and integrated natural entity’, reveals a truth that has been lost in the fracturing of water governance. The Catchment Based Approach in England moves some way towards integrated management of rivers. The Birrarung Council elevates catchment management to a higher purpose – to speak on behalf of the river itself, above the interests of various human stakeholders.
Rivers persist. The Thames, the Ganga, Birrarung, the Merri Creek, even lost rivers like the Moselle and the Fleet in London, and Williams Creek in Melbourne. Rivers, lost and living, shape our landscapes and livelihoods. It is no co-incidence that my earliest wanderings in my new home led me to my nearest creek. Rivers teach us a sense of place, and we have much to learn. Western legal systems seem to be catching up to ancient wisdom. Rivers are alive. They always have been.
[i] In Australia, as in the US and Canada, a creek is a stream smaller than a river. This different in the UK, where a creek is a small tidal inlet or estuary.
Written by Prof Sarah Bell
University of Melbourne
CAMELLIA former Co-I
Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (2020) Birrarung Counci – the ‘voice of the Yarra’. Victoria State Government. https://www.water.vic.gov.au/waterways-and-catchments/protecting-the-yarra/birrarung-council-the-voice-of-the-yarra
Matt Brown (2017) Who is Old Father Thames? Londonist https://londonist.com/2015/07/who-was-old-father-thames
Gabriel Eckstein, Ariella D’Andrea, Virginia Marshall, Erin O’Donnell, Julia Talbot-Jones, Deborah Curran & Katie O’Bryan (2019) Conferring legal personality on the world’s rivers: A brief intellectual assessment, Water International, 44:6-7, 804-829, DOI: 10.1080/02508060.2019.1631558
Kristin Otto (2005) Yarra: A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River, Text Publishing Australia.