Topic 18: Who is water?

It is well known that if we allow processes of dehumanisation to dominate, we can desensitise ourselves from acts of mistreatment, cruelty, or other forms violence, thereby allowing them continue. This applies not only to soldiers in military warfare but also to our civilian selves going about our daily lives with our daily prejudices.

If denying a person their full humanness can wreak moral disaster, is it possible that humanising a ‘non-person’ can trigger a virtuous cycle of moral flourishing? In this month’s discussion, we look at this question in relation to water.  We entertain the concept of not ‘what’ but ‘who’ water is to us and observe whether this shift in perspective changes the way we treat, use and value water in our lives.

For some people in some places in the world, this is not a shift in perspective, but the way it has always been. For others, it is a concept that is both radical yet self-evident and so morally indispensable that it has been codified in law. In New Zealand, Ecuador, Bangladesh, USA, Colombia and India, for example, major rivers have assumed environmental personhood and now have rights in the eyes of the law. Transnationally, the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers is also a step in the same direction. If traditionally slow-moving legal institutions can recognise a sense of personhood in water, can and should we do the same?

Optional watching and reading:

  1. (11 min video – we will watch this together on the day)
  2. (~5 min read)
  3. (~5 min read)

Image attribution:

Aniket Singh, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons,,_Birth_of_holy_Ganga_river.jpg

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