Initial Publication Date: May 27, 2014 | Reviewed: July 11, 2017

Does A River Have Rights?

Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College


Individual students have different ethical "lines." This class discussion proceeds with a series of prompts that presents a set of scenarios that explores ethical boundaries. Students discuss right and wrong actions with respect to a river and discuss why those actions are "right" or "wrong" as well as how their ethical viewpoints vary.


Introductory level course for majors or non-majors. Also appropriate for a workshop.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
General knowledge of geology and ecology.

How the activity is situated in the course
May be used at the beginning of a course or prior to discussing engineering controls on rivers or water quality issues to provide students with a "non-science" perspective to consider.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
The primary goals are for students to develop a deeper understanding of their personal ethic, the variety of ethical viewpoints held by their peers, and the basis for those views.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Students will analyze the viewpoints to determine their basis.

Other skills goals for this activity
Students will explain, in writing, their personal ethic and its basis.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

The principles are addressed through group discussion of ethical scenarios.

Description and Teaching Materials

In this exercise, students discuss the ethical aspects of several common ways in which humans interact with rivers.

Students are put into groups of three or four and presented with one aspect of a scenario by the instructor. After they discuss the scenario for three to five minutes the groups report out whether they think the case in the scenario is right or wrong. The instructor then presents another aspect of the scenario and the groups are given another three to five minutes and report out as before also explaining how their response compares to their previous response(s). The instructor presents several more aspects of the scenario and then concludes with a class discussion how the variations impacted the results.

For example (using Scenario two): You are fishing in a river and need to go to the bathroom, is it OK to go in the river? If you have a house next to a river is it OK to discharge your untreated waste into the river? Is it OK to discharge your treated waste into the river? Is it OK for (college town) to discharge its untreated waste into (local river)? Is it OK for (college town) to discharge its treated waste into (local river) if it still contains some pharmaceuticals that cannot be removed?

Case Study Scenario

The case study scenario should be river somewhere near the location where the discussion takes place. In each scenario, students should discuss why the action was taken, the benefits and harms that result, and which interests/impacts are privileged over others.

Scenario one: Is it right or wrong to take water out of the river? (to water a plant, to water a field, to supply a town, to frack a well)(with all water returned, a percentage returned, none returned)(the river's flow reduced by 50%, 75%, 100%)

Scenario two: Is it right or wrong to dump waste into the river? (waste from one boater, one home, a factory, a town)(untreated, partially treated, completely treated)

Other scenarios: Is it right or wrong to dam the river? Is it right or wrong to move the channel of a river?

Teaching Notes and Tips

During their small group discussions and report-outs the instructor should listen in and prompt students to consider slight variations on the given aspect presented. The best approach is to use Socratic Questioning. For example, when discussing the second scenario they might consider the volume of water in the river vs the volume of waste added, the impact on downstream users, and the natural introduction of waste from fish.


Formative assessment can be made by paying attention to the depth of the discussion. Students should go beyond the simple right/wrong and consider the nuances inherent in the simple scenarios.

Summative assessment can be made by having students submit a one to two page summary of the personal ethic using the scenarios discussed in class to illustrate their ethic.

References and Resources

Socratic Questioning is described here:

See also:

  • Rivers Get Human Rights: They Can Sue to Protect Themselves-Mihnea Tanasescu, Scientific America, June 19, 2017. In New Zealand and Ecuador, rivers with legal aspects of "personhood" open up new environmental battles
  • Corporations Have Rights. Why Shouldn't Rivers?--Julie Turkewitz, New York Times, Sept 26, 2017.
  • United States Supreme Court Sierra Club v. Morton, 1972 --The Sierra Club sued to block the Disney company from building a ski resort at Mineral King in the Sequoia National Forest. The majority of the court ruled that the Sierra Club did not have legal standing—that is, that the group failed to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party's participation in the case. However, in his dissent Justice Douglas argued:
    Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole—a creature of ecclesiastical law—is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases. The ordinary corporation is a "person" for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes.

    So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water—whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger—must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.