IRRAWADDY RIVER: ITS ROUTE, ECOLOGY AND DOLPHINS

IRRAWADDY RIVER

IRRAWADDY RIVER (Ayeyarwady River) runs for about 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) from northern Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal, near Yangon, and is constantly changing. In the wet season, in some places, it fills with so much water it resembles a vast chocolate-brown lake. In the dry season, in the same places, the river level drops so low that the river bed resembles a desert of white sand dunes. [Source: Alexander Frater, Smithsonian, May 1984, the Observer]

Keeping navigators on their toes are sandbars that change by the day, and even the hour, and channels that are fifty feet deep in the morning and silt up and disappear by the evening. It is not surprising that many of the steam ships that travel on the river periodically run aground and get stranded for days at a time. Erosion along the river is so common place that each year villages collapse into the river and swallowed by the swirling brown water.

The cast of characters seen in and along the Irrawaddy include women washing clothes, men sawing teak logs, fisherman casting nets and water buffalo pulling the logs out of the water. On some stretches of the river you can see acre-size squares of chained-together teak logs, bamboo rafts with huts on them and rafts built on top of clay cooking jars that sometimes break into pieces when they run aground. On the banks of the river are numerous villages, with women hawkers that sell cheroots, sweetmeats, fruit and roasted sparrows to passengers in passing ships.

Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “The Irrawaddy River has stirred the imagination of some of the world's greatest writers, such as Kipling and Orwell. The name "Irrawaddy" is an English corruption of Ayerawaddy Myit, which some scholars translate as "river that brings blessings to the people." But it's less a river than a test of faith, receding during the country's dry season until its banks sit exposed and cracking in the sun, only to return each spring with the monsoon, coming to life, flooding fields, replenishing the country with water, fish, and fertile soil. The Irrawaddy has never disappointed the Burmese. It is where they wash, what they drink, how they travel. Inseparable from their spiritual life, it is their hope. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006]

“All that arises, passes away. These waters speak of glacial beginnings in the snow-covered peaks of the Himalaya below Tibet. They have surged through jungle-covered highlands to emerge in the sun-scorched plains of central Myanmar, where they will continue to the ocean, releasing finally into the Andaman Sea. Boats carry staw-packed pts bound for Israel, wood for pottery kilns and taek and hardwoods bound for Thailand and India. Around Pyay taxi boats use old monk robes for sails. Black floats indicates where nets have been placed.

Importance of the Irrawaddy River to Myanmar

The Irrawaddy divides Myanmar in two. The eastern region is more densely populated and has better transportation links to Yangon. The western region is less densely populated and more rugged. Sometimes the only transportation links are by river. The middle portion of Myanmar is centered around the Irrawaddy River, with a large delta area at its mouth and the area above the delta featuring floodplains. Most of the population and agricultural lands are found along the Irrawaddy, which is navigable for about 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles). The Irrawaddy’s annual flooding during the rainy season makes its rich banks and delta the most fertile in Myanmar and ideal for rice paddy agriculture.

Kira Salak wrote: “Because the Irrawaddy river is navigable for most of its length, it has served throughout history as the country’s major transportation route for communication, trade, and warfare. Additionally, it has assisted in keeping alive the memory of earlier civilizations so that successive Burmese polities up and down the river have often asserted their legitimacy by demonstrating connections to earlier kingdoms. Interestingly, the depth of these connections is far greater in Myanmar than for other countries of mainland Southeast Asia.

”The Irrawaddy, including its considerable tributary, the Chindwin, drains approximately three-fifths of the country's surface terminating in a broad delta below the modern capital, Yangon (Yangon). Fertile silt from the Irrawaddy has continually expanded this delta area that gained in economic importance over the last two centuries as it was cleared for the production of irrigated rice. Yangon’s riverine location near the Bay of Bengal provided the British with a seaport through which to govern their colony. Until today, Yangon has remained the capital and center for political and economic activity, whereas Mandalay, built in the nineteenth century and the last royal capital, has continued to be a major center for fine arts and education.”

Route of the Irrawaddy River

Feed by water from Tibetan springs and Himalayan glaciers, which locals say make the river too cold to swim in even where it empties into the sea, the Irrawaddy River officially begins at a point called the Confluence, where a group of mountain streams gather beside a great rock. It then runs south through dense jungle passing through Myitkyina and Bhamo. [Source: Alexander Frater, Smithsonian, May 1984, the Observer]

Between Bhamo and Mandalay, the Irrawaddy River passes ruby mines and narrows and picks up speed and courses between towering cliffs. It twists and turns through the Three Narrows, three areas where the river narrows to less than 100 meters between forest and cliffs. The currents are very fast and there are of whirlpools. Between Bhamo and Sinbo, 55 miles to the north, there is another set of narrows that can not be negotiated by large boats.

Usually, this section can only be negotiated by boats for a six week period after the rainy season when the water is high enough. Before entering the most treacherous section of the river, captains consult a painted red-and-green rock shaped like the head of a parrot. If water reaches the parrot's beak it means that there is a difficult ride ahead. If the water is over the beak the boat has to wait.

There are many ship wrecks along this section of river, including vessels of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which were deliberately sunk in 1942 to keep them out of the hands of the invading Japanese. Some of the ships were salvaged in the 1980s and rebuilt.

Between the Mandalay area and the ancient city Pagan are the ruins of several old Burmese capitals, including Mingyun, Sagaing, and Amarapura. The temples of Pagan are visible along the banks of the river for more than 30 kilometers. In this area the river is filled with teak canoes and lashed together logs.

The ancient Burmese worshiped the Irrawaddy as Hindu's worship the Ganges, and Burmese monarchs built their royals cities on its banks and held meetings on it with their generals and scholars in gold-and-crimson ships with silk awnings. Captains and crews that ran aground on Italian sternwheelers purchased by the kings in the 19th century ran the risk of being beheaded on the foredeck of their own ship.

Downstream from Pagan, the Irrawaddy River passes the ancient city of Prome. As one approaches Yangon, more and more factories come into view and river activity picks up. The Irrawaddy does not run through Yangon but is connected to it by the Twante Canal. Before emptying into the Bay Of Bengal, the Irrawaddy breaks down into a massive delta laced with creeks and swamps. See the Irrawaddy Delta

Ayeyawady River Corridor

The Ayeyawady River Corridor was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Ayeyawady River Corridor(ARC) covers a 400 kilometers stretch of one of the last major undammed rivers in Asia. Tributaries originating high in Myanmar’s northern mountains flow south before joining northeast of Myitkyina to form the Ayeyawady River. The river basin lies almost entirely within Myanmar and covers nearly 60% of its land surface. Above the city of Mandalay until Bhamo, the river is home to the globally VU Irrawaddy Dolphin. The critically endangered sub-population of Irrawaddy Dolphin in this river is famous for its cooperative fishing behavior with humans. The ARC provides habitat for these dolphins, as well as for other wildlife including the White-bellied Heron and several species of globally threatened turtle. In total, the corridor covers 400 kilometers and would protect 90,000 hectares of river and riparian habitat.

Lower: Mingun to Kyauk Maung (N22 19 11, E96 0 2): The southernmost segment is the only section that is formally protected. This section is coincident with the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area (PA). This PA was established in 2005 after surveys by the Department of Fisheries (DOF) and WCS estimated that at least 59 dolphins were present (Tun 2005; WCS 2013). The area is managed by DOF but it has yet to be formally gazetted. The PA is 72 kilometers in length and runs from Mingun to Kyauk Myaung. It covers 32,600 hectares and is 10 kilometers at its widest. Surveys have found 35 fish species. Of these, the Bago Labeo (Labeo boga), Aspidoparia (Aspidoparia morar), and Gangetic mystus (Mystus cavasius) are the most common (Tun 2004; Ng 2013).

Middle: Moda Section,Takaung to Shwegu segment (N24 1 18, E96 21 48): The middle part would extend 160 kilometers from 9.5 kilometers south of Takaung to 4.8 kilometers north of Shwegu, and cover 37,200 hectares. The area provides habitat for the Irrawaddy Dolphin and many fish species (Tun 2005). Although little detailed data is available on this segment, it likely has similar species composition to the lower and upper segments.

Upper: Shwegu to Bhamo segment (N24 10 55, E97 7 21): The uppermost part would start 9 kilometers to the north of the middle section and continue to the town of Bhamo, 41 kilometers to the north, covering 19,900 hectares. Its northern extent would end at a narrow point in the river that is believed to be impassable to dolphins. Birds found here include the critically endangered White-bellied Heron and VU Lesser Adjutant.

Upstream of Bhamo, a fourth potential section of the ARC stretches from Sinbo up to just south of Myitkyina. This stretch of river is an IBA where seven additional globally significant waterbird congregations (>1% of the global population) are found. This Sinbo-Myitkyina section contains an assemblage of cold water fish that is distinct from the warm water fish assemblage found in the three other ARC sections downstream.

The Ayeyawady River has a central role in Myanmar history and culture, serving as a source of life-giving water and sediments that have formed the basis of successive civilizations that now form Myanmar, cultural value to its outstanding natural features. Specifically, cooperative human-dolphin fishing could meet cultural criterion (vi).

Wildlife in the Ayeyawady River Corridor

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Ayeyawady River Corridor(ARC) “includes a globally unique sub-population of the Irrawaddy Dolphin renowned for its co-operative behavior with local fishers. The ARC also provides important habitat for globally threatened birds and turtles, and could provide habitat for the re-introduction of a Myanmar-endemic turtle species. The ARC provides habitat vital to the survival of this sub-population, as well as for a range of other freshwater species including the critically endangered White-bellied Heron, which may have a global population as low as 250. All three sections may provide habitat for the globally threatened and Myanmar-endemic turtles and for the future re-introduction of the critically endangered Northern River Terrapin and the VU Burmese Eyed Turtle. Each section of the ARC overlap with an Important Bird Area, and the lower section has been identified as a potential Ramsar site.

The ARC’s three component parts are necessary in order to protect wide ranging and migratory species such as the Irrawaddy Dolphin, fish, and waterbirds, which all range along these sections of river. The ARC also provides some of the best habitat of undisturbed sandbanks for the future reintroduction of the Northern River Terrapin from assurance colonies. The Northern River Terrapin was historically common in the Ayeyawady, but now is considered extinct in the wild in Myanmar. The Burmese Eyed Turtle, which is endemic to Myanmar, may also be present in the area and could be reintroduced if it has been extirpated. Past records indicate that it was present as far north as Mandalay and the Shweli River, but its current status in this area is unknown (Platt et al. 2006). The northernmost segment of the serial site is an IBA and contains waterbirds and several other species of interest. Globally threatened species present include (Myanmar Biodiversity 2012):

Mammals: Vulnerable: Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) (sub-population critically endangered). Reptiles: Critically Endangered: Burmese Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra vandijki); Endangered: Burmese Peacock Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia Formosa). Birds: Critically Endangered: White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis); Vulnerable: Lesser Adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus); >1% of global population: Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), Cotton Pygmy-goose (Nettapus coromandelianus), Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus)

Fishing and Environmental Threats on the Irrawaddy River

Doug Clark wrote in the New York Times: “As the nation has modernized, the threats confronting the river dolphins have multiplied. Mercury from illegal gold mines, fertilizer from farms and industrial waste from factories have polluted the Irrawaddy. Increased ship traffic has harried the dolphins, and collisions are often fatal. Overfishing has devastated food sources, and the dolphins can get trapped in fixed gillnets and drown. Several are believed to have been electrocuted by fishermen illegally using car batteries to try to stun fish.. [Source: Doug Clark, New York Times, August 31, 2017]

Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “We are following the dolphins upriver when we pass some gill-net fishermen camped along the shore. This is one of the biggest threats to the Irrawaddy dolphin: Long nets are stretched across sections of the river to catch anything and everything that passes by—including dolphins. The fishermen call to us. "Do you want to see a big fish?" they ask. They produce a six-foot (two-meter) long nga maung-ma, or catfish, its head a foot and a half (a half meter) wide, its great whiskers three feet long (one meter). The orange-and-white body, dotted with black spots, glows in the sunlight, a masterpiece of creation. Tomorrow they'll take it to Mandalay and sell it for a small fortune: 45,000 kyat or 55 dollars—about a quarter of the average Burmese's yearly income. As we begin paddling after the dolphins again, I ask Lwin to wait. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006 \\\]

"I'd like to buy the catfish," I say. The gill-net men laugh at the idea, but when I show them the 45,000 kyat, they hand over the fish. My plan is to reach the deep channel on the opposite bank so I can set it free. For centuries, Buddhist monks living along the river have cherished these giant catfish; at the monastery near Thabeikkyin, monks told me they hand-feed giant catfish during the rainy season. And now Lwin, a Buddhist, eagerly embraces my plan to free the fish, noting the karmic merit I will accrue. But my sudden desire to save the fish's life is a simple matter: I just don't want that great orange fellow to die. \\\

Irrawaddy Dolphins

There are about 65 Irrawaddy dolphins left in Irrawaddy river according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Irrawaddy dolphins are found in the Mekong River in Laos and Cambodia, the Mahakam River in Kalimantan in Indonesia, the Padma River in Bangladesh, the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, and the Yangtze in China. They were once found on the Chao Praya River, which flows through Bangkok, but haven’t been seen there in decades. The Yangtze river dolphin is considered to be an Irrawaddy dolphin.

River dolphins are found in several rivers in Asia as well as the Amazon basin in South America. They range in size from five to eight feet in length. They are blueish grey in color and can survive in both freshwater and saltwater but prefers freshwater. They are shy, slow swimming. They have very long snouts lined with teeth that they seem willing to use in defense, unlike most dolphins. They swim in small groups with two or three individuals

Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic: River dolphins parted company with its oceanic ancestors about 15 million years ago, during the Miocene epoch. Sea levels were higher then, large parts of the mainland areas where river dolphins now reside may have been flooded by shallow, more or less brackish water. When this inland sea retreated, some scientists have hypothesized, river dolphins remained in various river basin, evolving into striking creatures that bear little resemblance to our beloved Flipper.[Source: Mark Jenkins, in National Geographic, June 2009]

Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Ayeyawady River Corridor

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Ayeyawady River Corridor(ARC) contains habitat essential to the survival of a critically endangered sub-population of the Irrawaddy Dolphin, which may currently contain as few as 59 individuals (Smith 2004). These dolphins make up one of three critically endangered freshwater sub-populations that are completely isolated from marine populations (Jefferson et al. 2008). The estimated 20 dolphins remaining in the southernmost segment of the ARC are globally outstanding for their communication and cooperation with fishermen.

While the existing Irrawaddy Dolphin PA is an important first step, the dolphin’s range extends another 330 kilometers to the north, which is encompassed in these sites. Detailed data on dolphin migration within the corridor is not available, but it appears that the cetaceans move between sections of the river following fish migration and been seen in the area between the lower and middle sections of the ARC property (Tun 2005; IUCN 2013). The Ayeyawady River supports significant human population and economic activities, which can be managed between the sections in buffer zones and with river-wide laws such as those governing mining and legal fishing gear. The three components also contain important habitat for waterbirds and turtles.

The ARC’s three sections extend over the Irrawaddy Dolphin’s known range, including area for migration along the river. All three sections share a warm-water fish species assemblage distinct from cold water areas further upstream. Ayeyawady is currently undammed, giving it a level of integrity that is increasingly rare for large rivers in Asia. The proposed Myitsone Dam project and a complex of upstream dams were put on hold in 2011 but future dam construction may impact the integrity of the ARC. Irrawaddy Dolphin populations may be decreasing, primarily due to electric fishing, including with electric gill nets, and drowning in fishing nets (Smith 2004). Mercury and arsenic contamination is a concern, with 180 gold mines impacting portions of the corridor in 2002. Mining has been banned within 90 meters of the riverbank since 2012, greatly reducing mercury concentrations (Tun 2005). Though there are no longer gold mining boats in the Irrawaddy Dolphin PA, small-scale mining on the banks persists as a threat. All turtle species are threatened by hunting for export to China. Northern River Terrapin reintroductions will require sandy riverbanks undisturbed by seasonal cultivation and secure from egg collection.

River Dolphins Help Irrawaddy Fishermen Fish

Doug Clark wrote in the New York Times: A few dozen fishermen are "left in Myanmar who know how to cooperate with Irrawaddy dolphins to fill their nets. Dwindling numbers of the endangered dolphins live in freshwater rivers and bays, including in Bangladesh and Indonesia, but only the population in Myanmar has been definitively documented as cooperating with humans. It is one of the few known instances of cooperation between humans and wild animals in the world.[Source: Doug Clark, New York Times, August 31, 2017]

” Irrawaddy dolphins have a long history with humans: A Chinese text dated to A.D. 800 noted, “The Pyu people traded this animal to China, and they named it the river pig.” When the dolphins stopped being prey and became partners is not known, but Mr. Thin Myu, 44, says he thinks it started in the times of his great-grandfather, who was a fisherman as well. Mr. Thin Myu said he had learned how to fish with dolphins from his brother and uncle. Back then, he told me, the fishermen had names for every dolphin, and the dolphins were so enthusiastic that they would spit water on fishermen sleeping in their boats at night to wake them to fish before dawn.”

Describing 42-year-old San Lwin fisherman, Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “ His father taught him to fish with dolphins when he was 16; the practice has been passed down for generations. Lwin's face, bronzed and creased from the sun, expresses a sort of reverence as he studies the silver waters for sight of a dolphin fin. "If a dolphin dies," he says, "it's like my own mother has died." [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006 \\\]

River Dolphins Help Fishermen Catch Fish Near Mandalay

Describing Lwin in action, Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “We reach the area of the river where Lwin says the dolphins congregate... Lwin and the other men tap small, pointed sticks against the sides of their canoes and make high-pitched cru-cru sounds. Several gray forms, gleaming in the sunlight, arch through the water toward us. One with a calf by her side spits air loudly through her blowhole. "Goat Htit Ma!" Lwin yells, pointing at her and smiling. "She's calling to us!" Goat Htit Ma has been fishing with them for 30 years, Lwin says. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006 \\\]

Doug Clark wrote in the New York Times: “On a recent sweltering afternoon on the Irrawaddy River, about 10 miles upstream from Mandalay, a Burmese fisherman tapped a small teak dowel against the hull of his squat wooden boat, producing a xylophonic beat. Drawn by the drumming, the gray, melon-shaped forehead of an Irrawaddy dolphin — one of maybe 65 left in their eponymous waterway — breached the surface nearby. The dolphin was joined by about a dozen more, and together they began herding a school of thrashing baitfish toward the sun-weathered fisherman, who waited on the boat with a throw net. [Source: Doug Clark, New York Times, August 31, 2017]

”But before he could cast it, a barge loaded with pyramids of logs chugged past, causing the dolphins to dive and scattering the fish. Frustrated, the fisherman, U Thin Myu, began trying to drum up his partners again with the dowel. But a parade of barges from Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, motored toward him and his wife, who was rowing at the stern.

”As he waited for the convoy of barges to rumble past his boat, Mr. Thin Myu patiently smoked a cheroot. After the convoy passed, he was again able to call the dolphins. He yelped at two he recognized, one by the distinctive white band around its neck, as if greeting old friends.

”One of the dolphins turned upside down, lifted its tail out of the water and slapped it down hard to the right — signaling to Mr. Thin Myu the location of their prey. With a shot-putter’s twist, he cast his net. The white mesh billowed open and came down over the roiling water. Another dolphin swam behind the splashing fish, herding them into the net. As Mr. Thin Myu reeled it in, the dolphins plucked at escaping fish. Mr. Thin Myu yanked a half-dozen small fish from the net, not yet enough for a full meal for his family. On better days, he would sell his excess catch at the market. But he never gave any to the dolphins — they had learned to cooperate with the fishermen independently, perhaps because they could steal fish tangled in the net.

“The fishermen splash their paddles to tell the dolphins they'd like to fish together. One dolphin separates from the group and begins swimming back and forth in large semicircles. It submerges again, reappearing less than ten feet (three meters) from our canoe, its tail waving with frantic urgency. Lwin winds up and tosses a lead-weighted net over the spot where the dolphin has shown its tail. The net spreads in the air like a great parachute, quickly sinking beneath the water. As Lwin slowly pulls it in, numerous silver fish flap in the strings. Lwin says the dolphins help themselves to any fish that escape the nets. \\\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020


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