By Francesca Sparaco and Earth Law Center staff
Earth Law Center and our partner Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum are seeking legal rights for the Pakistani portion of the Indus River.
Humans have depended on the Indus River for millennia
The longest river in Pakistan, the Indus River also ranks as one of the largest in Asia. It originates in Tibet at the junction of the Sengge Zangbo River and the Gar Tsangpo River and flows from Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Springs from melting glaciers feed the river.[i]
Civilizations have thrived near the Indus River for nearly 8,000. There is evidence of religious practices dating back to about 5500 BCE (“before the common era”) in the Indus Valley. Farming practices began in the area at about 4000 BCE, and uban development one thousand years later at about 3000 BCE. Known as the “Indus Valley Civilization,” these people may have numbered over 5 million people at their peak.
Although they left a system of writing, it remains undeciphered – accounting for the little knowledge we have about the Indus Valley Civilization.
Today, the Indus provides water needed by Pakistan to thrive, including by supporting agriculture in the Punjab province – known as the breadbasket of Pakistan – and supplying drinking water to much of the country. The Indus also supports diverse aquatic ecosystems that include some 150 fish species and 25 amphibian species, including 22 that are endemic to the area.
Threats to the Indus River
The Indus River and the Indus Delta are under threat from reduced flows, dam and canal construction, mangrove clearing and other habitat destruction, reduced sediment load, and severe pollution. Together, these impacts are severely degrading the health of this crucial river system.
Another negative impact comes from climate change. Rising temperatures and changes in weather patterns result in lost snowpack in the Himalayas, where most of the Indus’ water originates. [ii] Dwindling snowpacks affect rivers around the world; read more here in ELC’s blog about snowpacks.
As the Indus River’s 17 major creeks start to dry out, [iii] a recent study also noted that intrusion of seawater is salinizing drinking water for people living in the delta, also harming riparian plants and aquatic organisms that prefer freshwater.[iv]
Massive dams also present an existential threat to the river and riverside communities. The largest dam on the Indus, the Tarbela Dam, exists upstream of these provinces in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, therefore disrupting the natural cycles of this ancient river. Additionally, as noted by organizations such as the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, rural residents that live off of the fish populations of the Indus River have been negatively impacted by dam construction.[v]
A note about Mangroves
The Indus delta supports the largest arid climate mangroves in the world. Mangroves are evergreen forests between land and sea, occupying large tracts in shallow coasts, estuaries, and deltas. These forests form the backbone of the Indus delta’s delicate ecosystem, providing a breeding ground and food for various species of fish and shrimp.
The survival of Indus delta mangroves is dependent on adequate flows of freshwater from the Indus River as it flows through the delta and into the Arabian Sea.[vi] But dwindling Indus River water flow has led to the loss of about 86% of the mangrove forest cover over the last 30 years.
Other threats to these mangroves include excessive pollution, navigational activities, livestock grazing, erosion, and sea level rise. If action is not taken soon to protect and restore these mangroves, this crucial ecosystem may reach a breaking point.
Meet the Indus River Dolphin
The Indus river dolphin is an endangered species that calls this ecosystem home. It is only one of four river dolphin species worldwide that lives only in freshwater sources.
Today just over 1,000 Indus River Dolphins exist. Their population has declined in large part due to the construction of irrigation canals, which confine them to a 750 mile stretch of the river (an 80% decline from their original range[vii]) and divide the dolphins into isolated populations.[viii] The canals degrade their habitat, impede migration, and strand dolphins.[ix] The muddiness of the river renders the dolphins practically blind, so they can only communicate and find food through echolocation.[x]
An innovative solution: Earth Law
Despite decades of environmental laws and treaties, our planet’s health continues to decline. One fundamental flaw is that under the present system, the environment has no voice in decision-making and cannot bring issues to court.[xi]
Our current laws protect nature only for the benefit of people and corporations, which means that economic outcomes typically overshadow environmental consequences. Even when environmental issues are brought to court, people have to prove that the damage infringes on their own rights, since the environment has no rights itself.
Earth Law presents a solution to this flawed system. Earth Law is an ethical framework that recognizes nature’s right to exist, thrive and evolve – enabling nature to defend these rights in court, just like corporations can. [xii]
What does this mean in practice? Earth Law will enable people to defend nature in the courts for the sake of nature itself. Earth Law also aims to protect the environment for all creatures. And it ensures true environmental protection via proactive action and effective restoration projects.
Nature’s rights also benefit human rights. Where the environment is harmed, people suffer from disease, violence, and land loss. Therefore, in many situations, both human and environmental rights are supportable without conflict, and indeed would support each other. ELC has published two reports highlighting the connections between natural and human rights violations.
How Can Earth Law Help the Indus River?
The Indus River has suffered from severe declines and continues to face severe threats. So long as the law treats the Indus River as mere property to be exploited for profit, this waterway will continue to be over-diverted, dammed, and polluted.
To address this threat, Earth Law Center is working with the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and partners to give legal rights to the Indus River. Already, we have written a draft “Indus River Rights Act” that is under review by thought leaders in Pakistan.
This draft law recognizes the inherent rights of nature in the River Indus, and recognizes their need to be protected. These fundamental rights of the Indus River include:
The right to flow;
The right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem;
The right to be free from pollution;
The right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers;
The right to native biodiversity;
The right to restoration.
When enforced, these rights would prevent the construction of misguided dams on the river. They would shift the public view of the river from property to be divided up to life-giving partner. And they would give the river an opportunity to rebuild its biodiversity.
Earth Law places guardianship over the river in the hands of local community members in partnership with government. These guardians will be able to represent the Indus River in legal proceedings, enter into contracts on behalf of the Indus River, and take other actions necessary to protect the river.
Earth Law already exists
Two countries, Ecuador and Bolivia, are leading the way in Earth Law, where ecosystems have rights just as people and corporations do.
In Ecuador, the Quechua hold a united worldview of humans and nature, where both belong to an interdependent global community. This perspective inspired the 2008 revised Ecuadorian constitution, which reads: "We ... hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living." Similarly, Bolivia grants Mother Earth the right to life and regeneration, biodiversity, clean water and air, and restoration, among others.
Local governments have also stepped up legal protections for their environments. The Whanganui River in New Zealand has appointed guardians who have a responsibility to protect the River and act as its voice. The Atrato River in Columbia has legally been granted rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.” Numerous municipalities in the United States have enacted environmental legislation, including Santa Monica, CA, with the help of ELC.
From an international perspective, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its first resolution on Harmony with Nature in 2009. Harmony with Nature works to construct a new paradigm of our relationship with Nature in a non-anthropocentric way. It catalogs member states’ law and policies securing Rights of Nature.
If enough people support Earth Law, change will happen quickly. ELC is part of a growing group of concerned citizens who are committed to making Earth Law the next movement for change.
Act today and join the growing global movement of Earth Law:
Visit www.earthlawcenter.org for more details.