Salween River

The Salween River begins its journey at 4,000 meters above sea level, high on the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas.  It runs through the mountains of Yunnan Province in China, passing through Shan and Karenni states in eastern Burma before forming the border between Burma and Thailand for about 120 kilometers.  It continues south through Burma before reaching the Andaman Sea in the Gulf of Martaban at Mawlamyine, Mon State.  The total length of the Salween is approximately 2,800 kilometers.  An international river, in Southeast Asia its length is second only to the Mekong River. It is also the longest river in Southeast Asia that has yet to be dammed.
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The Salween River basin covers 320,000 square kilometers, and the watershed area is located in China (53%), Burma (42%), and Thailand (5%).  From the Himalayas to the Gulf of Martaban, the river is an integral part of the livelihoods and cultures of the ethnic peoples who live in the basin, which has one of the most diverse concentrations of such peoples in the world.  At least 13 different groups live in the valleys and floodplain areas along the river and its tributaries in Burma and Thailand, including the Shan, Wa, Karenni, Pa-O, Palaung, Mon, Lahu, Padaung, Akha, and Lisu.  Other ethnic peoples live along the river in China.  As it travels its long journey, the river takes on as many names as the peoples it meets.  It is called Nu Jiang (Nu River) in Chinese, Nam Kong (Kong River) in Shan, and Thanlwin in Burmese.  “Thanlwin” was pronounced “Salween” by the British and this name in English remains today.  

The most populated section of the river basin is the fertile floodplain area in the delta that covers thousands of acres at the mouth of the river.  There, most people tend paddy fields in the rainy season and vegetable gardens on the river bank in the dry season.  They also fish all year round.   

The Salween River basin area is an ecologically and culturally rich zone.  UNESCO has designated as a World Heritage site the area where the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween run roughly parallel through the mountainous north-west of Yunnan Province in China.  According to UNESCO, the site is one of the richest temperate regions of the world in terms of biodiversity.  The Thai government, too, designated the stretch of forest along the Salween River on the Thai-Burmese border as an important international wetland in 2000.

Thai villagers along the Salween River in Thailand and Burma say that there are about one hundred species of fish that migrate between the Salween and its tributaries.  These fish are an important food source for people in Thailand as well as in Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan States of Burma.

The forest along the Salween River on the Thai-Burmese border lies on a bio-geographic border that is rich in biodiversity. The Indo-Chinese sub-region meets the Sino-Himalayan (Indian) sub-region in the forest, so that in this area one may find plant and animal species that are similar to those found in the Himalayas and northern India, as well as those found in Indochina.

Not only is the Salween River basin abundant with wildlife and fish, but ecologists have identified the basin in Thailand and Burma as one of the world’s most fertile areas for teak.  Teak forests in this area grow in great density along the river, making it different from the teak forests in other parts of Southeast Asia, which grow in smaller patches.  The forest upstream and downstream from the proposed Tasang dam site is one of the last remaining stretches of forest in Shan State.  

The Salween River basin in Thailand and Burma is also an important historical area.  Archeologists have found evidence of unique pre-historic artifacts that shed light on the origin and development of communities in Southeast Asia.  Perhaps the best known site where such evidence has been found is the “Spirit Cave” in the mountainous area of Mae Hong Son District in Thailand.  

Text from the book The Salween Under Threat
To see the Water Resources eAtlas for the Salween click here
To learn more about the Salween, click here

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