India becomes second country to give rivers human status

A man wades amid pollution in the Yamuna river near New Delhi.

Story highlights

More than 63 million people in India without access to clean drinking water

Two Indian rivers join New Zealand river in being granted human status

New Delhi CNN  — 

A decades-long fight against river pollution in India has been given a much needed boost.

On Monday, a court in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand declared the Yamuna and Ganges rivers “living entities.”

The court justified its ruling on the grounds that the rivers were “losing their very existence” and the situation required “extraordinary measures to be taken to preserve and conserve the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna,” using an alternative name for the Ganges.

The ruling said the rivers, both of which are considered sacred to Hindus and personified as goddesses, were crucial in providing “physical and spiritual sustenance” to locals.

Suresh Kumar Rohilla, an expert on urban water management at Indian NGO the Center for Science and Environment, said it was unclear how the court’s decision would get translated on the ground.

“Any efforts to strengthen water quality (in the Ganges) are appreciated,” he said. “Policy level efforts earlier hadn’t brought results.”

Human status

The Indian court’s move comes a week after New Zealand’s Whanganui River became the first river in the world to be granted human status.

Maoris had been trying for a century to have their relationship with the river acknowledged by the government.

Under the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill, two people will act on behalf of the river and work to promote and protect its wellbeing.

The ruling in India echoed this, appointing three government officials as “legal guardians” of the rivers.

But Rohilla warned that it would not be a simple fix. “Ultimately courts can’t clean rivers,” he said, adding that people and government needed to take joint responsibility for protecting the waters.


The Ganges originates in the Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas, and flows nearly 2,520 kilometers(1,570 miles) through India and Bangladesh.

It serves as a lifeline for millions of Indians who live along its banks.

The same goes for the Yamuna, which travels 1,375 kilometers (855 miles) before merging with the Ganges and the Saraswati River at Triveni Sangam, known as the confluence of three rivers, in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, and the site for the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious festival.

The Yamuna provides drinking water for millions of Delhi’s 19 million residents. But by the time it leaves the eastern side of the capital, it is the dirtiest river in India.

UK-based NGO WaterAid said in a report this week that more than 63 million Indians are without access to clean drinking water.

Over the years, attempts to meet demands for fresh water from an ever growing population have proven difficult for the Indian government.

Earlier this year, it allocated $291 million to 20 projects under the Clean Ganga initiative. Most of the money will go towards building sewage treatment plants and upgrading infrastructure.