By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK - A ruling by Bangladesh's top court granting rivers the same legal rights as people could hurt the poor fishing and farming communities that depend on them, human rights activists said.
The Supreme Court declared this week that all Bangladesh's rivers had the legal status of living entities, a move aimed at protecting them from growing pollution, encroachments and illegal dredging.
"Water is likely to be the most pressing environmental concern of the next century," the court said in its order, calling for rivers to be protected "at all costs".
The ruling followed a 2016 petition and came after similar moves from countries including New Zealand, India and Colombia, and the U.S. state of Ohio to give legal rights to rivers and lakes.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the advocacy group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said such rulings may make riverside communities more vulnerable to eviction.
"Countries are jumping onto the bandwagon without setting up proper frameworks to check pollution and improve conservation," he said on Thursday.
"The New Zealand ruling recognised communities as stakeholders, and that is key. Otherwise, fishermen and farmers who have traditionally lived by rivers, but do not have legal rights to do so, may be more vulnerable to eviction."
Three Himalayan rivers converge in Bangladesh to form the world's largest delta and nearly 80% of the densely populated country of 165 million people is floodplain.
Millions live on or alongside rivers, relying on them for fishing and farming.
Authorities have already started evicting informal settlements along river banks in the capital Dhaka, human rights groups said.
The government estimates more than 2.2 million people live in slums and informal settlements, although land rights groups say the number is far higher.
"The government must take stock of poor communities who need resettlement, or protection from industries and real estate developers," said Mohammad Abdul Matin, general secretary of human rights group Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan.
"If enacted well, the verdict will be helpful in returning the rivers to the people who have historically depended on them."
The court appointed Bangladesh's National River Conservation Commission (NRCC), a government agency, as the legal guardian of rivers.
Chairman Muzibur Rahman Howlader said the NRCC was framing policies that would take local communities into account.
"Protecting the rivers also means protecting the entire eco-system, which includes fishermen and farmers who live on the banks. Their rights will also be protected," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.