Guardians of the River

A transformative course on water guardianship

In this unique expert-led course, learn about River Guardianship through different experiential modes of learning, including embodied practices, enlivening talks, and practical workshops alongside leading activists, environmentalists, Indigenous leaders and artists.

Hosted by Nicolas Salazar Sutil Facilitated by Anwulika Okonjo

Course preview

Course modules

In this first module, we orient ourselves by asking two important questions: What does it mean to become a River Guardian? What are some of the major global challenges faced by river systems?

We focus on the living river and the three pillars of river stewardship: memory, culture and spirituality. Learn about Brazil's longest river and its importance to the Kanayko and Kariri-Xoco peoples of Alagoas, and what is being done to protect its legal rights.

Connect with the kinaesthetic and somatic properties of water, and learn about the importance of paying attention to rivers through the medium of sound and music. How vital is it for River Guardians to learn to practice deep listening and environmental attention?

Learn from river warrior, Gary Wockner about his battle to stop hydroelectric dams and the plight of one of the most iconic rivers in the US - the Colorado. In the module, we also hear about the benefits of river swimming. How can we rethink water through the practice of open-water swimming?

This module explores the landmark ruling that pronounced the Atrato the first river in Colombia to be a legal person under the rights of nature framework. We will discuss the power of Black and Afro-descendent traditions in local River Guardianships. Why do racism and negative stereotyping continue to define river ecology and environmentalism?

Why are stories so vital to communicating the work of local River Guardians and activists? We discuss different local storytelling traditions around the world, media representation, filmmaking and the importance of campaigning for rivers. We also explore heart politics and how individuals and communities are joining the 'fight'.

How can a World Water Law be adopted, and what can River Guardians do to help make this law a reality? How can international actors work with Indigenous guardian organisations in Africa?

Learn about the importance of campaigning for rivers to be healthy sources of drinkable water and the fight for Europe's last wild river, the Kruščica. How can we ensure legal protection of rivers is implemented in practice? How can urban rivers be restored and what kind of action can urban river guardians mobilise to address riverside?

We honour various lifeforms that protect, guard and guide river spirits, both human and nonhuman. We explore land, dream, and artistic expression as vital aspects of River Guardianship.

Course information


Guardians of the River will give you tools and insights into water stewardship in relation to many iconic rivers worldwide including the Ganges, Beirut, Niger, Amazon, Fitzroy and Atrato. We will explore how every one of us can take responsibility for the world’s freshwaters, which are highly threatened by extractivism, climate change, pollution, and drought. We will explore what it means to cultivate kinship with rivers, and open up possibilities for engagement on both the personal and policy level.

The course brings together some of the world’s most influential water activists, including five Goldman Prize Winners and many Indigenous water guardians, from over 25 nations. You will learn vital aspects of river guardianship such as rights of rivers, rivercide, and riparian community-building.

Why this course?

Water is a living entity with whom we all have a deep relationship. Without water, there would be no life.

Repairing the water-human relationship is at the core of this collective online learning journey. How can we reconnect with water and understand our relationship with water bodies based on values of kinship?

Can we begin to shift away from perceiving water as a mere resource in service to the human project of capitalism? Can we begin to understand our relation to rivers as sources of life? As crucial as the air we breathe? Our aim is to understand the spiritual, ecological, cultural and legal aspects of river guardianship by listening and learning from skilled practitioners and experts from around the world who have lived experience and deep understanding of traditional water knowledge and global confluences of water activism.

Our approach to river guardianship

We emphasise the function of water as life, hence the need to restore relations between humans and rivers through biocentric values.

Our approach is based on a 3-way flow:

  • We must take care of our own bodies (i.e. learn how to use water for our own physical and mental wellbeing);
  • We must take care of physical and affective relations between humans through the interpersonal power of water (water kinship and community);
  • We must extend that sense of familiarity and responsibility to the protection of water bodies in general (river guardianship).

Starting from a somatic perspective, we will explore how to take care of our own bodily self in the way we drink, cleanse, bathe, swim, move and flow; we will learn about water kinship and riparian community-building, and we will navigate how to extend that sense of care between humans to a sense of love and care for freshwaters (i.e. via river activism, advocacy, counter-current journalism, legal defence of river and water art).

In order to change, we need to become aware of how we are interacting with the world around us. Somatics and physical self-awareness is essential to breaking free from oppressive systems and stories that are either internal or external to ourselves. We think it’s important to start from this perspective as it allows us to ask questions such as, What if we were able to get to the root of cultural crises? What if we were able to transform cultures by transforming the ways in which we inhabited our bodies? What if such practises were accessible to all?

The course will focus on three key aspects of river guardianship:

  • Rights of Rivers: personhood of rivers and legal entity for freshwaters, catchments and basins.
  • Rivercide: remedying and seeking justice following the ecological death of rivers due to industrial activity, agribusiness, hydropower and chemical and plastic pollution (we will cover major challenges such as drought, floods, dams and canalisation).
  • Riparian community building and activism: building riverside communities for regeneration, protection and custodianship of freshwaters.

The course is designed to change the way we understand our relationship to rivers in an age of ecological crisis, whether you see yourself working or interested in environmentalism, nature reconnection, community building, activism, eco-art, research, environmental law, advocacy, or are simply looking for inspiration.

Structure of the course

This 12-week course is structured as an exploration of interactive river biographies interspersed with a series of regional projects. In these sessions, stories of the environmental, social and political struggle and strategy to protect and restore river systems are woven together through talks and workshops followed by group reflection and debate. These sessions are interwoven with practical workshops to help better understand the somatic, physical and personal sources of human-water connection.

The core course material is accompanied and supported by 5 key actions:

  • Join the Ganga River Parliament;
  • Design a mural along the Beirut River;
  • Join a pilgrimage along the Cuckmere in England, from Alfriston to Cuckmere Haven, where the river meets the ocean;
  • Help draft a manifesto on Global Water Guardianship;
  • Join your local river Trust or community group.

Course Includes

9 Modules
37 Sessions
27 Speakers
Curated readings, resources and embodied practices
Community discussion area
Video and audio available


Rajendra Singh

Rajendra Singh is an Indian water conservationist and environmentalist from Alwar district, Rajasthan in India. Also known as "waterman of India", he runs an NGO called 'Tarun Bharat Sangh' (TBS), which was founded in 1975.

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Jennifer Avila

Jennifer Avila Reyes is a honduran journalist. She is the co-founder and editor in chief of Contracorriente, a news media outlet in Honduras, since 2017. She has previously been a documentary filmmaker and radio broadcaster in Honduras, as well as a fixer and freelance for digital media outlets in Latinamerica and Europe.

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Michal Kravčík

Michal Kravčík is a water management engineer. He graduated from the Civil Engineering Faculty of Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava. He has worked for 8 years at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He promotes ecological solutions for integrated river basin management.

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Maida Bilal

2022 Goldman Prize Recipient Maida Bilal led a group of women from her village in a 503-day blockade of heavy equipment that resulted in the cancellation of permits for two proposed dams on the Kruščica River in December 2018.

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Tawanã Cruz

Tawana is the cultural and spiritual leader of the Kariri-Xoco Fulkaxo, a group of three tribes of the Fulnio trunk based on the banks of the river Opara.

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Edgar Kanaykõ

Edgar Kanaykõ belongs to the Xakriabá Indigenous people in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. He holds a master’s degree in Anthropology from Federal University of Minas Gerais. He works in the area of ethno-photography: “a means of registering an aspect of culture — the life of a people.”

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Vanessa Hasson

Vanessa is a leading environmental lawyer and advocator based in São Paulo, Brazil.

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Eline Kieft

In her work, Eline combines her passion for anthropology, health, spirituality, and her intimate knowledge of the dancer’s body. She studied contemporary dance at CODARTS, Rotterdam, and also qualified as a teacher in Movement Medicine. This is an improvisation-based, meditative dance practice with roots in a shamanic paradigm.

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Leah Barclay

Leah Barclay is an Australian sound artist, designer & researcher who works at the intersection of art, science and technology. Her work explores ways we can use creativity, new technologies and emerging science to reconnect communities to the environment and inspire climate action.

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Sandy Sur

Sandy Sur is the director of Leweton Cultural Experience, an organisation devoted to the ancient customs of the Islands of Gaua and Mere Lava.

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Gary Wockner

Gary Wockner serves as Colorado Director for Clean Water Action, a coalition member of Americans Against Fracking, he is an activist, writer, and works as a consultant to scientific, political, and environmental organisations.

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Charles Dannreuther

Charlie Dannreuther is a lecturer in political economy at the University of Leeds. Past work explored enterprise policy as a response to capitalist crises with a focus now on experiences of rent, empire, risk and water value through the body. He is a general secretary of the European Association of Evolutionary Political Economy.

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Richard Moreno

Richard is community leader in the district of Tangui, Choco (Colombia). He is an environmental lawyer, who specialises in Rights of Nature, Conflict Resolution and Peace.

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Kamilu Hassan Hamza

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Mercy Ette

Mercy Ette is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, UK. Her research interests are interdisciplinary and focus on two broad areas. The first is the intersection of journalism and politics and the second is gender, conflict/terrorism and politics, in which she examines how gender overlaps with various aspects of socio-cultural and political discrimination.

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Stephen Okpadah

Stephen Okpadah is a Nigerian theatre and performance researcher interested in participatory theatre, storytelling and climate justice, with a regional focus on the Niger Delta. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick.

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Josh “Bones” Murphy

Josh is an award-wining director and producer. He recently directed ARTIFISHAL a feature documentary for Patagonia. He co-founded the production company Liars & Thieves! with editor Collin Kriner.

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Mark Dubois

Mark has long been a leader in river conservation, first capturing headlines in 1979 chaining himself to the bedrock of the Stanislaus River Canyon in the USA. He is the co-founder of Friends of the River and the International Rivers Network.

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Shelley Ostroff

Shelley Ostroff is a planetary activist, leadership consultant, social architect, mystic and writer. She is the founder of Together In Creation, 7 Days of Rest, CODES, and other initiatives dedicated to the healing and replenishment of the planet and all its inhabitants.

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Ikal Angelei

Ikal Angelei is a Kenyan politician and environmentalist. She was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012, in particular for her voicing of environmental implications of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam, speaking on behalf of Kenyan indigenous communities.

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Daniel Kobei

Daniel Kobei is the Founder and Executive Director of Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP), a Kenyan-based NGO working to secure human and land rights of the indigenous Ogiek community and other Indigenous Peoples (IPs) across Kenya and Africa.

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Li An Phoa

Li An Phoa is the founder of Drinkable Rivers, a whole systems ecologist, philosopher and entrepreneur, who engages people through outdoor learning experiences and initiates projects around landscapes, food and water.

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Kathleen Roberts

Kathlee Roberts is one of the founding members of Ikley Clean River Group.

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Mark Wilkins

Mark is a member of Clean Ilkley River Campaign Group UK.

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Robert Battarbee

Rick Battarbee is Emeritus Professor of Environmental Change at University College, London. He is a member of the Ilkley Clean River Group UK.

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Adib Dada

Adib Dada is the founder of theOtherDada. His work promotes a symbiotic relationship between nature and the built environment by exploring new ways of creating generous and regenerative buildings; in essence working with nature to develop resilient and generous cities.

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Nicolas Salazar Sutil

Action researcher, community builder, and transformational leader. Nicolas works in the areas of ecology, human rights and nature rights.

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Anne Poelina

Dr Anne Poelina is a Nyikina Warrwa (Indigenous Australian) woman who belongs to the Mardoowarra, the lower Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Poelina is an active Indigenous community leader, human and earth rights advocate, filmmaker and a respected academic researcher.

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What our students say

Excellent, this course has been life changing for me, almost an awakening moment. A deep call to action.

by Emma Stuart

Learning outcomes

  • Appreciate the rich diversity of living rivers: ground rivers, underground rivers, flying rivers, meanders, deltas, etc.
  • Understand rivers as part of living cycles with their own temporalities and flows.
  • Appreciate the deep interdependence between human society and freshwater.
  • Embody water knowledge through spiritual, somatic and experiential practice.
  • Recognise the significance of cultural practises in river stewardship.
  • Read the water for an understanding of changing environmental conditions and threats to river biomes.
  • Recognise the main threats to river life (agribusiness, hydropower, mining, plastic pollution and sewage).
  • Evaluate ideas holistically for effective approaches to river guardianship, and interaction between guardianship approaches and existing models of water management.
  • Develop community-building for collective river guardianship action.
  • Understand the legal, political and economic aspects of river stewardship.
  • Gain awareness of key river guardianship campaigns and advocacy groups currently underway worldwide.