The Ayeyarwady River is one of the major rivers of Asia and flows through the heartlands of Myanmar. The river’s basin is 413,674 square kilometres, covering 61% of Myanmar’s total area and is Myanmar’s most important commercial waterway. The United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre lists the Ayeyarwady as one of the world’s top thirty high priority river basins due to both its support of high biodiversity and high vulnerability to future pressures.

The basin is rich in biodiversity with over 50% of basin area covered with forest and about 6% with wetlands. The Ayeyarwady River is home to 79 known fish species and provides vital important wintering and staging habitat for migratory waterfowl. Near Mandalay, the river provides crucial habitat to the critically endangered Ayeyarwady Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) which is one of only four species of river dolphins in the world.

The interconnected ecosystems within the Ayeyarwady river basin provide valuable ecosystem services (provisional, cultural, supportive and regulatory) which support the livelihoods of many people within the region via productive agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture and tourism. Many ethnic and indigenous peoples in Myanmar are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods and traditionally have maintained natural resource management systems that ensure the sustainability of these natural resources.

The Ayeyarwaddy River is the fifth most heavily silted river in the world. The river carries large amounts of sediment that deposits in the delta area and causes extending of the delta area towards the sea. Sedimentation due to seasonal flooding in the delta area is important for rice growing, making the area one of the world’s major rice producers. For example, the Ayeyarwady Delta supports a population of over three million people and provides nearly 60% of Burma’s total rice production.These sediments also pose challenges for development of the basin water resources.

Given the environmental, cultural, social and economics values of the basin and river there has been a growing interest to collect data and to better understand how it can be sustainably managed into the future. Recognising the need for integrated management of the basin, the government of Myanmar is investing USD100 million in the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management (AIRBM) Project.

Supporting advancement of river health science and economics in Myanmar

Alluvium International is a established provider of catchment and river health science in the Asia Pacific Region and recently has delivered projects such as Strengthening River Basin Integrated Water Management and Planning in Thailand (funded by Asian Development Bank), development of the Sabah Environment Policy and Guidelines for the Malaysian government (funded by Government of Sabah), and development of Water Sensitive Principles for a new Capital city in Andhra Pradesh, India with the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities (funded by the Andhra Pradesh Government, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Water Partnership).

In Myanmar, Alluvium International and Natural Capital Economics (NCEconomics) have teamed to deliver a number of projects to advance the science and economic understanding of river management in the country.

These projects have been funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade supported Australian Water Partnership and delivered closely with the Myanmar Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems as well as the Hydro-Informatics Centre.

Working with ALS Hydrographics and Hydronumerics, Alluvium undertook the first comprehensive collation and quality review of hydrometric and meteorological data for the Ayeyarwady Basin. This data collation and review exercise established a critical database of more than 1,000 time series datasets for water managers in the basin.

Building on this initial work, NCEconomics led and delivered the first assessment and initial valuation of ecosystem services in the Ayeyarwady Basin. 11 separate ecosystem services were assessed ranging from the benefits of navigable shipping channels on the Ayeyarwady Basin through to the value of protecting groundwater quality for potable water supply.

The study found the annual value of ecosystem services derived is around $4.7 billion USD (range $2.5 – 7.5 billion), equivalent to up to 16% of GDP per capita for the residents of the Basin. Importantly, the study provides an information base to inform investment decisions in Basin management taking place under the AIRBM project.

Following this and in conjunction with Natural Capital Economics, WWF and Badu Consulting, Alluvium International are supporting the development of an environmental flows framework for the Ayeyarwady Basin.

There are a number of flows related challenges in the Ayeyarwady Basin, including the need to balance different elements of river development and regulation to control flooding, to provide water for irrigation, and for hydropower production, and to maintain and improve navigation. At the same time, there are risks to important ecological assets (such as floodplains) which in turn link to critical livelihood issues. For example, the Ayeyarwady Basin is the most important source of inland fisheries in a country where fish account for approximately 60% of animal protein intake. Based on our experience in other large river basins, major changes to the flow regime will pose a threat to this fishery resource, and dependent communities and industries.

A key challenge for this body of work is to provide for environmental flows in a way that is consistent with other development objectives. At its heart, environmental flow policy, planning and implementation is a socio-economic process, underpinned by ecological considerations and in projects like this, it is not, and should not be a purely technical exercise.

The work will extend the environmental and socio-economic knowledge base, including field and case studies, as well as further modelling of development scenarios, to verify and extend understanding of the ecohydrology and the trade-offs in sharing water.

A core challenge in this project is the incorporation of socio economic considerations in the trade off modelling and in particular consideration of the impacts and benefits to women in rural areas.

The project includes policy assessment and engagement to identify policy opportunities to establish environmental flows, including recommendations for the policy framework development and development of government capacity.

A key test of the Activity’s success will be the degree to which the framework can be practically applied by government agencies and stakeholders in the Ayeyarwady Basin, such as the AIRBM Project, and in Myanmar more broadly.

For more information please contact: Environmental Flows Framework for Ayeyarwady River (Amanda Shipp – +61 404 133 706);  Ecosystem services valuation attributable to the Ayeyarwady River Basin (Jim Binney – +61 407 032 552; or general Alluvium International inquires (Simon Tilleard (+61 490 267 116).