How should we address the Whanganui River now it has the legal status of a person? Old man river?

Probably not, since the ink on the law that has bestowed a novel status on the slow-moving current that cuts a brown path through a green landscape is barely a week old. Its new standing would seem to have no precedent but has created ripples in jurisdictions where traditional custom rubs against contemporary interests.

It was no surprise to see reports of Whanganui's new legal definition pique the curiosity of the world's news wires.

The venerated river, third-longest in the country, will have its own trustees to represent its interests. It has a bank account, too, in the form of a $1 million grant to create a legal framework and a $30m fund to improve its health. Like many people after years of a poor diet, the river is not in the best shape.


The new guardians who will represent the river - one from Maori interests, the other the Crown - will need to attend to its needs.

The solution is a uniquely New Zealand approach which recognises the nation's culture and history and respects the long struggle of the Whanganui iwi.

It took years to get legislation into Parliament to define the interests of the river and create a structure to satisfy all parties - riverside tribes, river users, local authorities - in a durable and enduring way. The Whanganui iwi have a saying: "I am the river and the river is me." From now on, the river will speak with its own voice.