The River Shannon has rights

On World Water Day, March 22, a commitment to campaign for a ‘Rights of Nature’ approach to be adopted for the River Shannon was placed on the United Nations Water Action Agenda.

This is part of a global campaign to protect the world's waters. The campaign seeks action to improve the health of the River Shannon for the benefit of the river and all human and non-human life that depend on it.

The group that registered the commitment to campaign for Rights of Nature for the River Shannon are made up of water protectors from local and national groups, as well as solicitors, barristers, scientists and academics.

Among them is Jack O’Sullivan of Zero Waste Ireland, who said: “Our aim is to transform into positive action more than 50 years of neglecting our finest and greatest river, which has never been given our care and full attention. Instead, we have exploited it, used the River Shannon and its tributaries for the disposal of wastewater, allowed intensive farming along its banks, drained its marshlands, or built on the river’s natural floodplain, and then complained about flooding!

“One hundred years ago we gave its management into the hands of an agency whose sole purpose is the generation of electricity from hydropower; and, while the generation of electricity from such a renewable source is good, the result has been a dramatic reduction in the ability of migratory fish to use the river, as they have done for millennia. And our future plans are even worse – to abstract 500 million litres of water daily from the river, to be treated to drinking-water standard and piped to Dublin, where some 40 percent of the water leaks away in the distribution system, and 20 percent of the water arriving in our homes is wasted for toilet flushing!

“Is this the result of the many state and local government agencies failing to collaborate, failing to see the River Shannon as a living entity to be cherished instead of being misused? Giving the River Shannon a legal right to be itself, to defend itself, to have this great river loved for simply being itself, is a vital step towards the transformation it needs, and that the people of Ireland need, as its guardians.”

Also speaking out against the abstraction plan was Sinéad Sheehan of Futureproof Clare, a group that has been involved in a number of campaigns related to protecting the River Shannon from pollution due to industrial development.

“The River Shannon deserves to be recognised as a life-giving entity, which deserves our respect and protection, like other important rivers such as the Whangunai River in New Zealand, which actually has the same rights as another human being,” Ms Sheehan said. “If the River Shannon had rights, we could use this legal framework to protect the Shannon and its related ecology, because at the moment the Shannon is facing serious threats, for example pollution from large industries on the Estuary, as well as a proposal to pump water from the Shannon to Dublin.”


Alison Hough, barrister and Lecturer in Law at the Technological University of the Shannon, said the purpose of this campaign is to bring together the individuals, communities and organisations that are interested in protecting the River Shannon and are interested in its protection.

“A radical change in our approach to our water bodies and wetlands is needed if we are to prevent catastrophic degradation and loss occurring in our lifetimes,” she said. “The Rights of Nature approach has the potential to reframe our institutional and systemic relationship with our water bodies, and it makes sense to start with our greatest river, the River Shannon.”

Ralph Kenna, Deputy Director of the Fluid and Complex Systems Research Centre in Coventry University, regretted that the Shannon is being “ruthlessly exploited for short-term monetary gain.

“As a complexity scientist, I hope our generation can reclaim the knowledge our forebears bequeathed us and reinstate the Rights of the River Shannon as a living complex system,” he said.

Ecojustice Ireland is another group involved in the rights campaign. Its CEO Declan Owens, who is also a solicitor, commented: “In my view, the Rights of the River Shannon already exist even though they are not presently recognised under Irish law. Legal recognition of human rights required extensive campaigning and we look forward to this campaign similarly helping in the process of securing legal recognition in Ireland for the Rights of Nature generally and for the Rights of the River Shannon in particular.”

The commitment placed on the United Nations Water Action Agenda can be viewed here.