© Hkun Lat / WWF-Myanmar
Ayeyarwady River

The Ayeyarwady River Landscape (ARL), spanning 1.7 times the area of the United Kingdom, falls within the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot and is considered one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. 

Home to more than 1,400 mammal, bird and reptile species — of which more than 100 species are globally threatened — its vast range of biodiversity is far from being fully known to scientists, with new species being discovered every year.

Though 388 fish species have already been identified in the ARL — a staggering 50% of which are endemic to the river basin — the total number of fish species in the landscape is estimated to be closer to 600. Other taxa, such as amphibians and invertebrates, have been poorly studied but are also expected to mirror the high biodiversity value. The list of endemic, Threatened, Endangered and Critically Endangered species runs long: the ARL is also habitat to iconic animals including the tiger, Asian elephant, clouded leopard, and Irrawaddy river dolphin.

The people of Myanmar highly value the Ayeyarwady River as the country’s blood and lifeline. The river basin, including the delta and its rich forests and wetlands, has laid the foundation for Myanmar civilisation over thousands of years. Today, it continues to deliver essential ecosystem services to 66 percent of the country’s population who live within the basin, contributing up to US$6 billion to the national economy each year primarily through fishery and agricultural resources.

The ARL is of crucial importance to Myanmar’s emerging economy (industries, agriculture and fisheries), providing most of the country’s energy supply from hydropower.

However, this economic significance and rapid development are now posing a major threat to the landscape’s biodiversity and essential ecosystem services. 

Although much of the remaining intact forests in Myanmar are located in the mountainous Upper Ayeyarwady catchment, deforestation and degradation of existing forests are critical issues in the ARL. Illegal and unsustainable timber extraction associated with plantation and mining concessions are the main drivers for forest degradation. Expansion of croplands also contributes to massive changes in forest cover in the hilly and floodplain zones of the Middle Ayeyarwady. Between 1980 and 2013, mangrove cover in the Ayeyarwady delta has decreased from 2,748 km2 to 450 km2, mostly due to conversion to rice paddies.

Dams represent another major threat to this unique free-flowing river and delta ecosystem, along with all its associated biodiversity. A clear programme is needed to target energy and infrastructure development policy and investments, especially with an emphasis on new renewables such as solar and wind.

With a lack of proper regulation and enforcement capacity, as well as increasing financial pressure on fisherfolk, the adoption of illegal fishing practices such as electro-fishing in capture fisheries is taking a significant toll on aquatic ecosystems. Fish stocks are further affected by the capture of egg-bearing and small-sized fish which significantly inhibits recovery. These actions, on top of pollution and other disturbances, also affect vulnerable species such as the Irrawaddy dolphin, river turtle and otter, posing direct risks of injury or death and exacerbating reduction of prey and habitat area available to them.

What WWF is doing

In order to protect the Ayeyarwady River landscape, its wildlife and natural resources and the communities who depend on them, we are working with partners to:

  • Build technical capacity for integrating renewable energy into the national grid system
  • Promote cleaner production in Myanmar’s growing food and beverage sector, specifically in small and medium-sized enterprises
  • Support campaigns to ensure a free-flowing Ayeyarwady River
  • Empower local communities and provide them with platforms to leverage their voices in natural resource management
  • Support community-based fisheries management and river dolphin protection
  • Investigate opportunities for mangrove restoration and sustainable consumption