The Guardian travelled the length of the Whanganui in New Zealand to investigate whether new legal protections will make a difference
Adam Daniel wades waist deep through the glassy water. Pumice stones spiral in the shallow eddy, while the shrill whistles of a male whio (blue duck) echo upstream through the green canyon walls. The mountain streams deep current slows around a lone tree standing on a small rocky island before rushing toward the sea.
Like a doctor, Daniel spends the morning checking the pulse of the rivers upper arteries, taking temperature readings and drawing water samples to diagnose its vitality. Thirty kilometres to his south-east, the Whanganui Rivers pristine headwaters begin in the internationally renowned Tongariro National Park, on the western flanks of three cone volcanoes, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.
From there the river carves through two national parks, a national forest, farmland, two large towns and many smaller communities on its journey 260km to the south, where it empties into the Tasman Sea.
But the body of water flowing past Daniel is more than a geographical feature. Granted personhood in 2017 by an act of the New Zealand parliament, the Whanganui is the first river in the world to be recognised as an indivisible and living being.
The Mori tribes that live along the Whanganui have always seen the river as sacred its waters have nourished and blessed the people throughout the 700 years they have lived beside it. The law set in motion new intentions to uphold the mana (prestige) and mauri (life force) of the river.
Yet despite the rivers new legal status, it still faces challenges from farming and forestry to dams and development. And Daniel a biologist charged with monitoring river habitat health is troubled with recent temperature and clarity readings.
The river is sick, and he needs to know where the illness begins.
Defining the rivers rights
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