The Ayeyarwady Basin is a vast area of more than 410,000 square kilometers, covering a total of 12 diverse eco-regions – from Hkakabo Razi Mountain at 5,881 metres (m) with its alpine shrub and meadow system dropping down to the delta mangroves and mudflats at sea level.
The Ayeyarwady Basin is one of the most diverse biological regions in the world. It is the 19th richest region in bird diversity globally. It is home to 1,400 mammal, bird, and reptile species of which more than 100 species are globally threatened. At least 388 fish species are known to occur in this region, but the total is estimated to be nearer 550 once most of the areas have been surveyed. For most taxa, the current knowledge is very scarce and scattered. Amphibians and many invertebrates are little studied. This report focusses on wetland and riverine habitats and the biodiversity that is relatively well-studied.
The analysis of the biodiversity in the basin is a sobering account of a wide-spread and systemic degradation of the basin’s species, habitats, and ecosystem functions. The findings in this assessment confirm a wide-spread decline in almost all taxa and across almost all regions. Several vertebrate species among the mammals, birds, and reptiles have already disappeared from the Ayeyarwady Basin, and many others are likely to follow suit if conservation actions are not taken seriously and supported with proper resources. The declines are pronounced and sharp, in particular for comparatively well-monitored water birds on many river stretches and lakes. A few species are increasing. Yet the vast majority is declining and, in some areas or regions, sharply, creating a sense of urgency to protect the characteristic, yet fragile biodiversity of the Ayeyarwady Basin. The riverine breeding birds, such as terns, skimmers, and lapwings, are most affected alongside the fast disappearing freshwater turtles, reflecting the overall precarious situation in the river and its wetlands. The threats and reasons for the declines are variable and far ranging, including large-scale industrial development, flyway-related issues among the migratory birds, small-scale but increasing sand and mineral mining, precipitious hunting, and poaching across the entire basin.
The fragile river system and its wetlands are under enormous and increasing pressure from hydropower development, sand, pebble extraction, mining for gold and other minerals, and over-exploitation of its biological resources. It is a unique ecosystem and a lifeline for millions of people living in the center of the country. It deserves full protection and strict control over its resource management.
Rapid changes in social and economic conditions will likely occur across Myanmar in the near future as annual rates for economic growth are expected to be as high as 8% and tightly linked to natural resource exploitation. Overall, Myanmar is close to a market of more than half a billion people. This creates new and additional challenges for people and biodiversity, which are already under enormous environmental stress. This could be addressed through policy and institutional reform and the integration of environmental safeguards into economic development planning. Some of these safeguards must be a comprehensive network of protected areas and a sustainable resource management that is negotiated and led by communities and supervised by an Integrated River Basin Management Committee and local subsidiaries. A resource management plan for entire rivers and adjacent wetlands needs to be established that includes no-take zones free of any fishing, mining, and dredging.
In total approximately 90 key biodiversity areas have been identified, including 6 new areas based on the findings of this analysis. Only approximately 50% of these areas are included in a Protected Areas system. However, progress has been made recently, and two new Ramsar Sites have been designated.
The Ayeyarwady River is unique. Its is one of the largest rivers in Asia that has not been fragmented by dams. It is largely unconstrained in its hydrology, sediment, and nutrient flow and still hosts a unique suite of biodiversity of international importance. Its scenery with quaint villages and pagodas, impressive sandbars, and gorges is unique and beautiful. It would certainly qualify as a World Heritage Site under natural criteria and possibly also for cultural criteria. This would not only boost the conservation of the region’s rich cultural and natural history but also provide a long-term vision for the local communities that builds their livelihoods and promotes a viable economy through eco-tourism and sustainable use of the river’s natural resources.
Water birds have been well-studied, and long-term trend data are already available and have been analysed. These groups of birds are proposed as biodiversity indicators, and a suite of monitoring sites is proposed to monitor the health of the wetland ecosystems in the basin.
In addition to the water birds and freshwater turtles, the river dolphins act as key sentinels for the health of the river ecosystem. The Irrawaddy River dolphin population is in a critical but stable state. The Yangtze Dolphin is extinct, and the Mekong River population of the Irrawaddy Dolphin is on the brink of extinction due to human impacts on the river ecosystem. Myanmar has the choice to either follow the destructive path of the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers, where biodiversity has suffered and the dolphins have been lost (Yangtze) or almost lost (Mekong), or opt for sustainable development in balance with biodiversity and people.