The Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River (Burmese: ဧရာဝတီမြစ် ) is a river that flows from north to south through Myanmar (formerly Burma). 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 through the Irrawaddy Delta into the Andaman Sea. Its drainage area of about 255,081 km sq 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.
In 2007, Myanmar's military government signed an agreement for the construction of seven hydroelectric dams, yielding a total 13,360 MW, in the N'mai and Mali Rivers, including the 3,600 MW 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 and the Irrawaddy river shark, an extremely rare species of river shark.
The Irrawaddy River arises by the confluence of the N'mai and Mali Rivers in Kachin State. Both the N'mai and Mali Rivers find their sources in the Himalaya 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.
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 Bengal and South-East Asia
The Irrawaddy River has five major tributaries. As they flow through the northern tip of Burma – the Kachin State – they cut long north-south alluvial plains and relatively narrow upland valleys between the 2,000 to 3,000 metres (7,000–10,000 ft) mountain ridges.The rivers joining the Irrawaddy are, from north to south: