The ailing Ayeyarwady

picture_2 Fishermen on the expansive Ayerwaddy River. Photo: Hkun Lat / WWF Myanmar.

11 Oct 2020 - Source: Myanmar Times - Born in Phaung Gyi village on an island near the shore of the Ayeyarwady River in Nyaung-U Township, just under 150 kilometers south-west of Mandalay, Ko Aung Zaw Oo feels agitated whenever he returns home.

He is now 43. Throughout his life, his village has moved five or six times due to landslides.

"The village our grandparents built had survived 20 to 30 years. I am now over 40, and over my lifetime I've seen our village move further down the river," Ko Aung Zaw Oo, a tour guide who runs his own English language school in Bagan, said.

The 2210 kilometer-long Ayeyarwady river, the lifeline of the country, starts in the far reaches of Kachin's hilly north and ends at the flat tidal plains in the delta region. The river has been the pivot for commodity trading for centuries.

In the past, the river used to serve as a route for timber trade, and today is still home to an array of different flora and faunae– including the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin (so-named after the old spelling of the river).

However, hydropower development, deforestation, destructive fishing practices and climate change have threatened the health of the Ayeyarwady and its aquatic species.

Ko Aung Zaw Oo said that when the river was in good shape, all the islands used to flood in the rainy season. Around July, the villagers would migrate to wooden huts propped on top of stilts. As the water subsided the villagers grew peanuts in the best silty soils, resulting in large harvests for the dry season.

A fisherman casting his net into the Ayeyarwady River_Photo: Min Zayar Oo/WWF Myanmar

As the river ecosystem changed and the banks became drier, the soils were less fertile and crop yields also started declining.

"When we were young, all the islands in the river would flood. The water used to reach up to 10 feet from the ground and, in some years, it reached up to seven or eight feet high. Two years ago, the water only reached up to the outskirts of the village, before retreating after the rains. This year, the water levels are quite high but nowhere near the previous highs. The river seems to be drying up," he said.

The fish in the river have also been threatened. When Ko Aung Zaw Oo returned home recently, he met villagers who used electrofishing methods to catch fish. Fishing by electrocution may net many more fish, but it also poses a massive threat to the river's dolphins.

"Dolphins were once abundant in the river. When we crossed the river, they were a common sight. Now it's rare to see one," he said.

U Maung Lay follows in the footsteps of his father fishing on the Ayeyarwady River. The pair also follow the lives of the Irrawaddy dolphins to catch fish. The tradition, passed down from his father's generation, is known as cooperative fishing. The technique involves the fishermen signalling to the dolphins by tapping on the boat with a stick and slapping the water gently with the paddle.

When they call out to the dolphin pods, individual dolphins would surface in the distance. They would then herd schools of fish towards a boat. With a wave of their flukes, the dolphins then signal the right time for the fisherman to cast their nets.

The decades-old tradition is unique to the river, but is under threat due to the more destructive electrofishing methods. "I have been fishing with Irrawaddy dolphins since 1984. They are like my family. If one dies, I feel like it's a loss to my own family," U Maung Lay said.

Plastic has also impacted the river. Residents living along the river throw plastic shampoo bags into the river after washing their hair on the banks.

When Ko Aung Zaw Oo was young, they used gourd shells as a natural water container. These days people use plastic bottles, which are easier to obtain and discard.

Marking World Rivers Day, on September 27th, WWF-Myanmar released a new report highlighting the urgent need to preserve Myanmar's unique and valuable free-flowing rivers.

The report Mapping Myanmar's Free-Flowing Rivers highlights the importance of free-flowing rivers to the economy and the lives of Myanmar people, and calls for the protection of the last long free-flowing rivers of tropical Asia - the Ayeyarwady, the Chindwin and the Thanlwin rivers.

According to the Ayeyarwady State of the Basin Assessment (SOBA) Report, the Ayeyarwady River alone is worth $ 2-7 billion a year in ecosystem services, representing 5 to 16 percent of Myanmar's GDP per capita in ecosystem services. The fish in the river represents two thirds of animal protein for a typical Myanmar diet, and the river also provides direct employment for over 6 percent of the population.

The report shows that the key reason why Myanmar's rivers have remained so productive and biologically diverse is because they are free-flowing. However, the report also highlights the threat to the free-flow of water by plans to develop hydropower.

The study only looks at large dams. Based on data sources, 208 barriers (dams) were constructed along the river. These include 133 existing barriers, 6 of which are under construction. A further 69 dam projects have been planned.

Currently Myanmar is home to a many healthy, productive, free-flowing rivers and tributaries. The livelihoods of millions of people depend on these rivers being healthy.

However, if all of the planned dams are built, nearly all free-flowing rivers will be lost. This includes the Ayeyarwady and the Thanlwin, which are the last long free-flowing rivers in all of tropical Asia.

An Ayeyarwady Dolphin at Oasis Sea World marine park at Chantaburi in June 2004. Photo: EPA/Barbara Walton.

There is very high potential for wind and solar use in Myanmar, but further investments are needed to demonstrate their continuing viability. Currently there are a number of projects underway.

"The need to preserve Myanmar's unique and valuable free-flowing rivers for the health and economic wellbeing of its people has never been more urgent. As we are in the midst of a global pandemic, now is a particularly important time. If these free-flowing rivers are destroyed, not only will the millions of villagers who live beside the river be affected, but the whole nation will also suffer," Salai Thura Zaw, Programme Officer at the Freshwater Programme, said.

Spiritual and cultural values are also one of the hidden values provided by the rivers. There are many historical and cultural heritage sites along the Ayeyarwady River, such as Bagan, showing our ancient civilisation once developed and prospered on the river banks.

"Ayeyarwady was the root that delivered the foundations of Bagan. The city was founded near this important river. Ayeyarwady has made Bagan world famous," Ko Aung Zaw Oo said. 

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