Irrawaddy River

The United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre lists the Irrawaddy as one of the world’s top thirty high priority river basins due to both its support of high biodiversity and high vulnerability to future pressures. The river is home to 79 known fish species and as of 2002 there were four known endemic bird areas in the basin. The biodiversity of the river is still not well studied; a new species of hill stream catfish was discovered as recently as 2005. The Irrawaddy is the fifth most heavily silted river in the world.
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The Irrawaddy River flows through the heartlands of Burma. The river’s basin is 413,674 square kilometers, covering a remarkable 61% of Burma’s total area. At approximately 2,170 kilometers long, it is Burma’s most important commercial waterway.

The Irrawaddy originates at the confluence of the Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka rivers in Kachin State. The headwaters of both rivers originate in the southeastern Himalayas. The N’Mai rises in the Languela Glacier north of Putao. The confluence is 28 miles (45 km) north of the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina. Three major tributaries, the Chindwin, Shweli, and Myintge, meet the river as it flows south through Burma’s central heartland, and the country’s second largest city of Mandalay.

Near Mandalay the river is habitat to the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. Orcaella brevirostris is one of only four species of river dolphins in the world. However, the dolphins’ habitat in the Irrawaddy has declined nearly 60% in the last century, and the best estimate of the current population is just 59 individuals.

The dolphins reach 2-2.75 meters in length, are dark blue to dark gray and have a unique cooperative fishing relationship with humans which offers science an amazing opportunity to study the relationship between man and animal. The loss of prey due to disturbances in fish migration patterns, the degradation of water quality, and the change in river hydrology caused by the Irrawaddy/N’Mai/Mali dams upstream may become a serious threat to the already endangered and special Irrawaddy dolphins.

Downstream, the river empties into the Andaman Sea through a nine-armed delta. The delta consists of a large and fertile plain that is 290 km long and 240 km wide. The lower part of the delta is a fragile and intricate ecosystem of mangrove swamps and tidal estuaries. The delta supports a population of over three million people and provides nearly 60% of Burma’s total rice production. However, many people in the delta suffer from extreme poverty caused in part by the heavy levying of taxes by the regime and a lack of land rights. Private prawn farms and deforestation have destroyed the environment to such an extent that the World Wildlife Fund called the future survival of wildlife in the Irrawaddy freshwater swamp forest ecoregion “bleak.”

Text from Damming the Irrawaddy
To see the Water Resources eAtlas for the Irrawaddy click here {morfeo 8}

Voices of the Dammed

Development in Burma