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Whanganui River: The World’s only ‘Living’ River

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There are plenty of world firsts and history trends to remember, but one of the strangest of recent times is easily the Whanganui River – the world’s only ‘living’ river. After a 170-year battle, fought for by the local Maori tribe, our country’s third longest river has been granted its own legal identity, with all the corresponding rights and liabilities of a citizen. This legislation was passed under a Parliamentary bill, recognising the deep spiritual connection Maori have with the local landscape and natural world as a whole. 

When you consider the river’s spectacular scenery, it’s easy to understand why people value the environment so highly. The river rises between the slopes of Mount Tongario and flows through the North Island’s forest areas, bordering the Whanganui National Park. This river is of huge importance to the Whanganui tribes. It is their ancestral river, an enduring source of nature and history. From the Maori’s point of view, the river is its own life force and as such, significant efforts have been made to protect its health and well-being. After one of the longest-running legislations in New Zealand history, it now has an identity in and of itself.

The Whanganui River’s history dates back at least 600 years ago. It was used for trade and communications by the Maori people. For a time, it had a regular riverboat service from around 1891, carrying passengers and European settlers between Whanganui and Taumarunui. As a result, tourism flourished in the 1920s, but the service soon died out when better roads and railways were built.  

When it comes to considering the river’s new legal status in context, it will have a number of different measures. The government and the Whanganui tribe will have responsibility of the river, upholding its health and legal identity. As the river will have human rights and obligations, just like actual people, it would even have to pay tax (theoretically) if the river was used to supply goods or services. The use of the water won’t be banned under the new legislation, but it will be closely regulated and preserved.

The legislation completely upturns the idea of controlling nature, ensuring for a sense of freedom between the Maori’s relationship with the land. Nobody owns the river, it is technically its own person, which could make for an interesting debate over whether there should be any limitations to humans’ control of nature. Whilst financial and technological progress will always be of huge importance, the Maori people’s respect for the Whanganui River should make us pause and think about how our actions impact the natural world. Doing so will bring us one step closer to maintaining a balance that will stand us all in good stead in combating climate change as a country.

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