Repairing our Relationship with Rivers: Water Law and Legal Personhood presentation

On behalf of the UVic Graduate Student Law & Society Research Group:

Part of the Personhood Series:

 Date: Monday December 11th at 12:30 PST over Zoom.

Title: Repairing our Relationship with Rivers: Water Law and Legal Personhood

Presenter: Professor Erin O’Donnell (University of Melbourne Law School)

Description: Since 2017, rivers around the world have experienced a profound transformation in law: they have become legal persons, legal subjects, living persons, and/or living entities. This alchemical transfiguration from legal object to legal subject renders the river uniquely visible, and legible, to the law in ways it has not been before, and often brings with it new legal rights and powers. In this presentation, I ask what this transformation means for water law, and what the implications are for established water law frameworks. To date, the impact on water law has been relatively minor: new river persons have never yet received any legal rights to the water flowing between their banks. But their existence challenges the foundational assumption of Western water law: that water is merely a resource, capable of exploitation for human consumption. These new river entities demonstrate the power of law as a mode of repair, and create an opportunity to repair and restore our relationship with rivers. So far, water law has maintained its distance from this emerging transnational concept, but this position is becoming increasingly untenable. When a river is a living entity, or a legal person, the question for all water scholars and practitioners becomes: what does it mean to be in good relations with the river?

Bio: Dr Erin O’Donnell is a Senior Lecturer and ARC Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne Law School. She is a water law and policy expert, recognized internationally for her research into the ground-breaking new field of legal rights for rivers. Her work explores the challenges and opportunities these new rights create for protecting the multiple social, cultural and natural values of rivers. Her work is informed by comparative analysis across Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, the USA, Bangladesh, India, Colombia, and Chile. Since 2018, Erin has been a member of the Birrarung Council, the voice of the Yarra River in Melbourne. In 2023, Erin commenced an ARC-funded research fellowship to explore the opportunity of treaty to address aqua nullius, increase Traditional Owner power and resources in water, and create more sustainable and legitimate settler state water laws. Erin’s latest book, Legal Rights for Rivers: Competition, Collaboration, and Water Governance, is available now from Routledge.


Meeting ID: 852 3060 8035

Password: 479621

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