The ailing Ayeyarwady

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.

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

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Zon Pann Pwint