Protecting Nature Through “Personhood”

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Clean water is a human right, and some cities are ensuring it by giving their waters legal personhood. In the New Hampshire town of Nottingham, residents gave their drinking water supply legal personhood. This status provides the well water and its broader ecosystem the right “to be free from all corporate activities that infringe” on it. As The Counter explains, that means no sewage, chemicals, or petroleum refinery waste is allowed — and if anything harmful does get in the water, residents can intervene on its behalf. Legal rights for nature are a growing movement in environmental law, putting the natural world on more equal footing in court. 

Why this Matters: The natural world is essential for us humans to survive. From oil spills to toxic PFAS chemicals to leaking landfills, there are plenty of threats from human activity. Protecting the environment is beneficial to our own health in the short term — clean drinking water, for example — and in the long-term as a buffer against climate change. Giving land and water legal rights is one way to both protect ecosystems and provide legal recourse if those rights are violated. With the Biden administration planning to protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, granting legal rights for the natural world could be part of long-term conservation.  

Florida Rivers Now Have Rights: In Orlando, voters gave the Econlockhatchee and Wekiva Rivers legal personhood, both prohibiting pollution and giving people the chance to sue if that right is violated. The amendment was the most popular item on the ballot last November and made Orange County the most populous area in the country to give nature legal rights, Sierra reports. The rivers have absorbed nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from surrounding septic tanks, fertilizer runoff, and agriculture waste for years, leading to toxic algae blooms that are harmful to wildlife and human health.

Specifically, the amendment states that “all Citizens of Orange County have a right to clean water” and that the county’s waterways have a “right to exist, Flow, to be protected against Pollution, and to maintain a healthy ecosystem.”

Environmental personhood around the world: Tamaqua Borough in Pennsylvania was the first place to recognize rights of nature in law when it banned the dumping of toxic sewage sludge in 2006. Since then, other cities and countries have created laws including:

Bangladesh became the first country to give all its rivers legal personhood in 2019.

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