The Whanganui River is a major river in the North Island of New Zealand. It is the country’s third-longest river, and has special status owing to its importance to the region’s Māori people. In March 2017 it became the world’s second (after Te Urewera) natural resource to be given its own legal identity, with the rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person. The Whanganui Treaty settlement brought the longest-running litigation in New Zealand history to an end.
With a length of 290 kilometres (180 mi), the Whanganui is the country’s third-longest river. Much of the land to either side of the river’s upper reaches is part of the Whanganui National Park, though the river itself is not part of the park.
The river rises on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro, one of the three active volcanoes of the central plateau, close to Lake Rotoaira. It flows to the north-west before turning south-west at Taumarunui. From here it runs through the rough, bush-clad hill country of the King Country before turning south-east and flowing past the small settlements of Pipiriki and Jerusalem, before reaching the coast at Whanganui. It is the country’s longest navigable river.
The river valley changed in the 1843 Wanganui earthquake.
In the 1970s a minor eruption from Mount Ruapehu spilled some of the contents from the Ruapehu Crater Lake (the same root cause of the Tangiwai disaster). This toxic water entered the Whanganui River and had the effect of killing much of the fish life downstream. In the aftermath of the poisoning, eels as large as 8.2 kilograms (18 lb) and trout as large as 2.3 kilograms (5.1 lb) were washed up dead along the banks of the river.
Taonga and Māori land claims
The river is of special and spiritual importance for Māori, who also refer to it as Te awa tupua—it was the home for a large proportion of Māori villages in pre-European times. As such, it is regarded as taonga, a special treasure. In recent times, efforts have been made to safeguard the river and give it the respect it deserves.
For the same reason, the river has been one of the most fiercely contested regions of the country in claims before the Waitangi Tribunal for the return of tribal lands. In fact the Whanganui River claim is heralded as the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history with petitions and court action in the 1930s, Waitangi Tribunal hearings in the 1990s and land occupations such as the ongoing Tieke Marae occupation since 1993 and the highly publicised Moutoa Gardens occupation in 1995, refer to Moutoa Island.
On 30 August 2012 agreement was reached that entitled the Whanganui River to a legal identity, a first in the world, and on 15 March 2017 the relevant settlement was passed into law by the New Zealand Parliament. Chris Finlayson, the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, said the river would have an identity „with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person“. He said some people would consider it strange, but it is „no stranger than family trusts, or companies, or incorporated societies.“ The bill finalised 140-year-old negotiations between Māori and the government. The river will be represented by two officials, one from Māori and the other from the government