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The Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River( , ) is a river that flows from north to south of Burmamarker (Myanmar). It is the country's largest river and most important commercial waterway. Originating from the confluence of the N'mai and Mali rivers, it flows relatively straight North-South before emptying via the Irrawaddy Delta in the Andaman Seamarker. Its drainage area of about 413,000 km² covers a large part of Burma. After Rudyard Kipling's poem, it is sometimes referred to as 'The Road to Mandalay'.

As early as the sixth century the river was used for trade and transport. Having developed an extensive network of irrigation canals, the river became important to the British Empire after it had colonized Burma. The river is still as vital today, as a considerable amount of (export)goods and traffic moves by river. Rice is produced in the Irrawaddy Delta, irrigated by water from the river. Another important export good, Teak, is floated down the river to Yangonmarker.

In 2007, Burma's military government signed an agreement for the construction of seven dams, yielding a total 13,360 kW, in the N'mai and Mali Rivers, including the 3,600 kW Myitsone Dam at the confluence of both rivers. Environmental organisations have raised concerns about the ecological impacts on the river's biodiverse ecosystems. Animals potentially impacted include the threatened Irrawaddy Dolphin.


The Burmese name of Irrawaddy (transliterated by the government of Burma as Ayeyarwady) is derived from the ancient name of the river Ravi, Airavati, in the Punjab region, but through its Pali, rather than its Sanskrit form.. Airavati in turn is the name of the elephant mount of Indra, a minor Indian god. Elephants were in Indian mythology often a symbol for water

When transliterated literally from Burmese spelling, the modern rivername comes down to Erawati. Due to the spreading of Buddhism in South-East Asia, some names in Burma, and to a lesser extent in other South-East Asian countries, are adaptations of Indian place names associated with Buddhism, e.g. Myawaddymarker (originated from Amaravati), Dvaravati, Ayuthiamarker (originated from Ayoddhya or Ayujjha), Cambodiamarker (originated from Kamboja). Erawati also belongs to this category, as it is also the ancient name of the river Ravi in Punjab". The ancient name was Airavati, in Sanskrit meaning:

  1. ira -any drinkable fluid; a draught (especially of milk),, refreshment, ..vat...granting drink or refreshment, of a river in Panjab now called Ravi..
  2. Airavata (fr.ira-vat), a descendant of Ira-vat;....,N. of Indra’s elephant...(i) the female of Indra’s elephant; N. of a river,...;lightning...."

This is incompatible with Erawati, as it does not start with the vowel e. When the ancient name of the Ravi is rendered in Romanised Pali though, it is Eravati, which is compatible with the modern transliteration of the rivername, Erawati. The above means that not influence by Arabic (via Wadi), or Sanskrit (via Airavati) but Pali (via Eravati) has determined the name of the Irrawaddy.

The Irrawaddy gives its name to a dolphin, the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), which is found in the upper reaches of the river and known to help fishermen who practice cast-net fishing. Though sometimes called the Irrawaddy River Dolphin, it is not a true river dolphin, since it is also found at sea.


The Irrawaddy River bisects Burma from north to south and empties through the nine-armed Irrawaddy Delta into the Indian Oceanmarker.


The Irrawaddy River arises by the confluence of the N'mai and Mali Rivers in Kachin Statemarker Kachin. Both the N'mai and Mali Rivers find their sources in the Himalayamarker glaciers of Northern Myanmar, in the vicinity of 28° N . The eastern branch of the two, N'mai, river is the larger stream and rises in the Languela Glacier north of Putao. It is unnavigable because of the strong current whereas the smaller western branch, the Mali river, is navigable, despite a few rapids. Herefore, the Mali river is still called by the same name as the main river by locals.

The town of Bhamomarker, about 150 miles (240 km) south of the Mali and N'mai river confluence, is the northernmost city reachable by boat all the year round although during the monsoons most of the river cannot be used by boats. The city of Myitkyinamarker however lies south of the confluence and can be reached during the dry season.


Between Myitkyinamarker and Mandalaymarker, the Irrawaddy flows through three well-marked defiles :
  • About 40 miles (65 km) downstream from Myitkyinā is the first defile.
  • Below Bhamo the river makes a sharp westward swing, leaving the Bhamo alluvial basin to cut through the limestone rocks of the second defile. This defile is about 300 feet (90 m) wide at its narrowest and is flanked by vertical cliffs about 200 to 300 feet (60 to 90 metres) high.
  • About 60 miles (100 km) north of Mandalay, at Mogokmarker, the river enters the third defile. Between Kathamarker and Mandalay, the course of the river is remarkably straight, flowing almost due south, except near Kabwet, where a sheet of lava has caused the river to bend sharply westward.
This sheet of lava is the Singu Plateau, a volcanic field from the Holocene. This field exists of magma from the fissure vents and cover an area of about 62 km². The plateau is also known as Letha Taung.

Leaving this plateau at Kyaukmyaungmarker , the river follows a broad, open course through the central dry zone - the ancient cultural heartland — where large areas consist of alluvium flats. From Mandalay (the former capital of the kingdom of Myanmar), the river makes an abrupt westward turn before curving southwest to unite with the Chindwin Rivermarker, after which it continues in a southwestern direction. It is probable that the upper Irrawaddy originally flowed south from Mandalay, discharging its water through the present Sittoung River to the Gulf of Martaban, and that its present westward course is geologically recent. Below its confluence with the Chindwin, the Irrawaddy continues to meander through the petroleum producing city of Yenangyaungmarker, below which it flows generally southward. In its lower course, between Minbumarker and Promemarker, it flows through a narrow valley between forest-covered mountain ranges—the ridge of the Rakhine Yoma Mountainsmarker to the west and that of the Pegu Yoma Mountains to the east.

The Irrawaddy Delta

The delta of the Irrawaddy begins about 58 miles (93 km) above Hinthadamarker (Henzada) and about 180 miles (290 km) from its curved base, which faces the Andaman Seamarker. The westernmost distributary of the delta is the Patheinmarker (Bassein) River, while the easternmost stream is the Yangon River, on the left bank of which stands Myanmar’s capital city, Yangon (Rangoon). Because the Yangon River is only a minor channel, the flow of water is insufficient to prevent Yangon Harbourmarker from silting up, and dredging is necessary. The relief of the delta’s landscape is low but not flat. The soils consist of fine silt, which is replenished continuously by fertile alluvium carried downstream by the river. As a result of heavy rainfall varying from 80 to a year in the delta, and the motion and sediment load of the river, the delta surface extends into the Andaman Sea at a rate of about 165 feet (50 m) per year.


Due to monsoonal rains, which occur between mid-May and mid-October, the volume of the Irrawaddy and its tributaries varies greatly throughout the year. In summer, the melting of the snow and glaciers in Northern Burma add to the volume. The average discharge near the head of the delta is between a high of 32,600 cubic metres (1,152,000 cubic feet) and a low of 2,300 cubic metres (82,000 cubic feet) per second. Over a year, the discharge averages 13,000 cubic metres (460,000 cubic feet). Further North, at Sagaingmarker, the hydrograph shows a 38% decrease in discharge compared to where the river enters the delta.

Variation between high and low waterlevel is also great."Irrawaddy River - hydrology." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 17 Jul. 2009./ At Mandalaymarker and Promemarker, a range of 9,66 metre (31,7 feet) and 11,37 metre (37,3 feet) respectively has been measured between low-water level and floodlevel. Because of the monsoonal character of the rain, the highest point is recorded in August, the lowest in February.

This variation in water level makes it necessary for ports along the river to have separate landing ports for low- and high-water."Irrawaddy River - hydrology." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 17 Jul. 2009 / Still, low water levels have caused problems for ports along the river, as in the BamawMandalaymarkerPyaymarker sectors, the shallowest point is as shallow as 2 feet.

Within the basin, the average population density is 79 people/km². For these people, the river supply amounts to 18,614 m³ per person per year.


Along the North-South course of the Irrawaddy River, three regions with notably different flora can be distinguished.

Northern Mountains

The streams of the Nmai and Mali that form the Irrawaddy originate in high and remote mountains near the border with Tibet. This part of Burma, which extends north from Myitkyinamarker and the Irrawaddy confluence, lies entirely outside the tropics. Rain falls at all seasons of thy year, but mostly in the summer. The valleys and lower hill ranges are covered with tropical and subtropical evergreen rainforest instead of monsoon (deciduous) forest. This region is characterised by subtropical and temperate forests of oak and pine are found at elevations above 3,000 feet (900 metres). This evergreen forest passes into sub-tropical pine forest at about 5000 feet Above 6,000 feet (1,800 metres), are forests of rhododendrons, and that in turn into evergreen conifer forest above 8000 feet.

The Central Basin and Lowlands

The Central Basin consists of the valley of the middle Irrawaddy and lower Chindwinmarker. It lies within the 'dry zone' and consists almost enterirely of plains covered with thorn forest and tropical dry and moist deciduous forest, which comprise the teak-dominated moist deciduous forests and the drier patches of Dipterocarpus-dominated dry deciduous forests, respectively. The one meteorological factor, and that is the most important for plant life, which does not greatly vary is atmospheric humidity. This is always high, except locally, in the winter. It usually does not fall below 75% and is 90% or more for long periods during summer.

Irrawaddy Delta Area

The Irrawaddy River and it's tributaries flow into the Andaman Seamarker through the Irrawaddy Delta. This ecoregion consists of mangroves and freshwater swamp forests. It is an extremely fertile area because of the riverborne silt deposited in the delta. The upper and central portions of the delta are almost entirely under cultivation, principally for rice. The southern portion of the ecoregion transitions into the Myanmar Coastal Mangroves and is made up of fanlike marshes with oxbow lakes, islands, and meandering rivulets and streams.


The Irrawaddy river is home to a large diversity of animals, including about 43 fishspecies.

The most well-known of these species is the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), a euryhaline species of Oceanic dolphin with a high and rounded forehead, lacking a beak. It is found in discontinuous sub-populations near sea coasts and in estuaries and rivers in parts of the Bay of Bengalmarker and South-East Asia.

As for birds, winter visitors and passage migrants include Phalacrocorax carbo, a wide variety of Anatidae, Fulica atra, about 30 species of migratory shorebirds, Chlidonias hybrida, Hydroprogne caspia and the Brown-headed Gull (Larus brunnicephalus), which is very common. One of the most numerous wintering shorebird is the Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus), which occurs in flocks of many thousands along the outer coast of the delta. The Wood Sandpiper and Red Junglefowl (Tringa glareola) are also abundant.

In the late 19th century, the Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) nested in huge numbers in south Burma. One colony on the Sittang plain to the east of the delta was described in November 1877 as covering 100 square miles and containing millions of birds. Immense colonies still bred in the area in 1910, but the birds had disappeared completely by 1939. Small numbers were regularly reported in the delta in the 1940s, but no breeding sites were located. No pelicans have been recorded in recent years, and it may well be that the species is now extinct in Burma.

Several species of large mammal occur in the delta, but their populations are small and scattered, with the possible exceptions of the Malayan Sambar (Cervus unicolor equinus), Hog Deer (C. porcinus) and Wild Boar(Sus scrofa), which have been reported from all Reserved Forests. Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) were once widespread throughout the country with numbers as high as 10,000 animals, but in de last decade numbers have dwindled, partly due to transferring the animals to logging camps. Other species reported to be present include the Leopard,Bengal Tiger, Crab-eating macaque, Wild Dog and otters (Panthera pardus, P. tigris, Cuon alpinus and Lutraspecies).

The estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) can be found in the Southern part of the river delta. The species was formerly abundant in coastal regions of Burma, but is now known principally from the lower Ayeyarwady Delta. Population numbers have decreased because of a combination of commercial skin hunting, habitat loss, drowning in fishing nets and over-collection of living animals to supply crocodile farms.

Despite recent declines in the Sea Turtle populations, five species are known to nest in Burma at well known island and mainland beaches known as turtle-banks. These are the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), loggerhead(Caretta caretta), green (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), andleatherback(Dermochelys coriacea) marine turtles.


The Irrawaddy River has five major tributaries. As they flow through the northern tip of Burma — the Kachin Statemarker — they cut long north-south alluvial plains and relatively narrow upland valleys between the 7,000 to 10,000 ft mountain ridges. The rivers joining the Irrawaddy are, from north to south:

  1. Taping River
  2. Shweli Rivermarker
  3. Myitnge Rivermarker
  4. Mu River
  5. Chindwin Rivermarker

Economy and Politics

[[Image:Mandalay 32 TeakIndustry g.jpg|thumb|200px|Pulling teak logs, made into large rafts and floated down the Irrawaddy River, ashore near Mandalaymarker.

As early as the sixth century, ancestors of the Burmese were using the Irrawaddy river, which runs through the center of Burma, to gain power in the region through trade and transport on the Chinamarker - Indiamarker route. By the twelfth century, a well-developed network of irrigation canals made for flourishing rice cultivation. Later, the river became a key economic tool of British interests, who set up trading ports along its shores.

Today, the Irrawaddy is still the country's most important commercial waterway. Despite Mandalaymarker’s position as the chief rail and highway focus in northern Burma, a considerable amount of passenger and goods traffic moves by river. As the Irrawaddy Delta is one of the world's major rice-growing areas, one of the most important goods transported is rice. Teak logs - Myanmar is one of the world's top exporters - are floated down the river as large rafts. Before it is transported, teak has to be seasoned, because otherwise it won't float. This happens by girdling, a practice where a deep circular cut through bark and sap is made into the heartwood. Other major goods that are transported from the nation's heartlands to Yangonmarker for export are other foodstuffs, petroleum, cotton, and local commodities.

Commercial transportation on the Irrawaddy is maintained for about 1,300 km: from Hinthadamarker to Bhamomarker (1,080 km) throughout the year, but from Bhamo to Myitkyinamarker (200 km) for only seven months. More than 3,200 km of navigable waterways exist in the Irrawaddy delta, and there is a system of connecting canals. The Sittang is usable by smaller boats, but the Salweenmarker, because of its rapids, is navigable for less than 160 km from the sea. Small steamers and country boats also serve the coasts of the Rakhine and Tenasserimmarker regions.On the Chindwin Rivermarker, transportation is carried on by steam or diesel vessels throughout the year up to Homalinmarker—about 640 km from its confluence with the Irrawaddy. Seasonal navigation is carried on into Tamanthi, which is 57 river miles (92 km) above Homalin.

The Chindwin valley has no railroad and relies heavily on river transport. Chaukmarker, downstream from the confluence in the oil-field district, is a petroleum port. It is linked to Yangon by road and rail. Hinthadamarker, near the apex of the delta, is the rail junction for lines leading to Kyangin and Bassein (Pathein). A ferry operates between Hinthada on the west bank and the railway station at Tharrawaw on the east bank.


Burma’s junta signed an agreement with China Power Investment Corporation in May 2007 for the construction of seven hydroelectric dams along the Irrawaddy, Mali, and N'Mai River in Kachin State. The total planned output of all seven plants will be 13,360 MWs of electricity, making it the largest hydropower project in Burma, surpassing surpassing the 7,100 MW TaSang Dam in Shan State.The following data is available for the dam locations:

Capacity, Height and Length Data for the Dam Projects
Location Myitsone Chibwe Pashe Lakin Phizaw Khaunglanphu Laiza
Height (m) 152 47,5 - - - - -
Length (m) 152 220 - - - - -
Capacity (MW) 3,600 2,000 1,600 1,400 1,500 1,700 1,560

The power generated by the dams will be transmitted to other countries in the South-East Asian region, with most going to Chinamarker. Other countries targeted for power export are Thailandmarker, Indiamarker and Bangladeshmarker.

The largest of the seven, the Myitsone Dam, is located at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai Rivers at the creation of the Irrawaddy. Although the China Power Investment Corporation is project manager of the Confluence Region Hydropower Projects.. ParConfluence Region Hydropower Projects , several companies have been or are currently involved in the preparation, construction and financing of the 3,600 MW Myitsone Dam. Asia World Company has a key position, amidst Burmese Suntac Technologies and state-run Myanmar Electrical Power Enterprise, a state-owned utility enterprise responsible for power generation, transmission and distribution

Chinese involvement comes from China Power Investment Corporation, China Southern Power Grid, Yunnan Machinery Equipment Import & Export Company and Changjiang Institute of Surveying, Planning, Design and Research.

At least one Japanese company is involved, Kansai Electric Power Company.


Due to its location and size, construction of the Myitsone Dam has raised significant ecological and sociological concerns. According to the Irrawaddy Myitsone Dam Multipurpose Water Utilizing Project study, the maximum water level of the reservoir wil be 290 metres. This makes for a flood zone of 766 km2, compromising 47 villages.

Other consequences of the inundation include loss of farmland, loss of spawning habitat as fishes can not swim upstream anymore. The Kachin Development Networking Group, a network of civil society groups and development organisations in Kachin Statemarker warn this will lead to a loss of income for fishermen. They report locals are also worried about the flooding of cultural sites in the flood zone. As with other large dam projects, the Myitsone Dam construction will alter the hydrological characteristics of the river, e.g. preventing sediment from enriching riverbanks downstream, where it usually enriches the riverside foodproducing plains. This can affect fertility as far downstream as the Irrawaddy Delta, the major rice-producing area of Myanmarmarker.

Ecological concerns focus on the inundation of an area that is the border of the Indo-Burma and South Central China biodiversity 'hotspots'. The Mali and N'mai River confluence region falls within the Mizoram-Manipur-Kachin rainforests, added to the WWF list of outstanding examples of biodiverse regions.

The location of the Myitsone Dam, located less than 100 km from a fault line where the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates meet, raised concerns about its earthquake resistance.Recent earthquakes in the region, such as the 5.3 magnitude earthquake that struck near the Burma-China border on August 20, 2008, prompted Naw Lar, the coordinator of the KDNG dam research project, to ask the junta to reconsider its dam projects.

Major cities and towns

Irrawaddy River from Sagaing Hill, Sagaing
The river flows through the following cities:


Until the construction of the Avamarker (Innwa) Bridge, a 16 span rail and road cantilever bridge built by the Britishmarker colonial government in 1934, the only way across the Irrawaddy was by ferry. The bridge was destroyed by the retreating British Army during the World War II and was rebuilt in 1954 after Burmese independence and was the only bridge to span the Irrawaddy until recent times when a spate of bridge construction has been carried out by the government.
  1. Ayeyarwady Bridge (Yadanabon) just upstream from the old Ava Bridge at Sagaing
  2. Bala Min Htin Bridge over the N'Mai Hka at Myitkyina, November 1998
  3. Anawrahta Bridge at Chauk, April 2001
  4. Ayeyarwady-Magway Bridge at Magway
  5. Bo Myat Tun Bridge at Nyaungdon, November 1999
  6. Nawaday Bridge at Pyay, September 1997
  7. Maubin Bridge at Maubinmarker, February 1998
  8. Ayeyarwady-Dedaye Bridge at Dedaye


Image:Sagaing3.jpg|The new Ayeyarwady Bridge (Yadanabon) at Sagaing, Ava Bridge behindImage:Irrawaddy_Mandalay-Hill.JPG|River Irrawaddy with Mandalay Hillmarker on the east bankImage:Irrawaddy_boat.JPG|Travelling on the great riverImage:Rivercraft_Irrawaddy.JPG|Traditional rivercraft on the IrrawaddyImage:Irrawaddy_log-buffalo.JPG|Buffalo pulling logs from the Irrawaddy at MandalaymarkerImage:Irrawaddy@Mingun.JPG|The great river at MingunmarkerImage:Irrawaddy_Island-Village.JPG| An island village on the Irrawaddy stays above water on stilts during the monsoonsImage:Irrawaddy_bamboo-rafts.JPG|Bamboo rafts by the IrrawaddyImage:Irrawaddy_west-bank.JPG|Market on the west bank at MingunImage:Irrawaddy_raft.JPG|Bamboo raft sailing down the IrrawaddyImage:Westbank_Irrawaddy.JPG|Woman sailing in small boat along the west bank at Mingun


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