The Salween River
With an approximate length of 2400km, the Mighty Salween River is one of the longest rivers in the region. It is an international river, originating from Tangula Mountain of the Himalayas in the Tibetan plateau. The Salween then flows southward through Yunnan Province of China, down through Shan and Kayah States in the East of Burma (Myanmar), and along the Thai-Burma border, passing through Kayan and Mon States (Burma), and emptying into the Gulf of Martaban in the Andaman Sea.

The Salween basin covers 320 000 sqkm, and its location is latitude16°15’-33°15’N, longitude 91° 00’-100° 00’E. The watershed area is located in China (53%), Burma (42%), and Thailand (5%). Numerous major tributaries including the Pang, Teng, Pawn, Hka, and Hsim Rivers join the Salween in Burma. About 320km from the mouth, the river forms the border boundary between Burma and Thailand for about 120km, before meeting with the Moei River (Thaungyin River), a major tributary of the Salween that also divides the two countries.

In the Burma and Thailand regions, the Salween basin topography is mountainous, with long narrow river valleys. The basin is rich with natural resources, including water (surface and ground), forest, wildlife, fishery and aquatic life, and minerals. Part of the basin in Thailand is national park and wildlife sanctuary. Its beautiful landscapes include many caves, rapids, cliffs, unusual rocks, and waterfalls that serve as tourist attractions.

A natural river ecosystem and its watershed (area where smaller tributary rivers join the major one) takes millions of years to form and evolve together; created by natural flows of water, biomass, and sediment that settles through the watershed and river. Habitats in the Salween eco-region support rich and endemic (a species that lives and thrives only in a specific area) freshwater fauna. The river is home to at least 140 species of fish, in which one third are endemic.

The people who live in the Salween basin are a diverse ethnic community, and come from many different ethnic groups. They rely mostly on lowland rice paddy farming, and upland swidden cultivation. The areas along the river south of China have suffered a long history of conflict and political unrest, with the Burmese army nearly always being the aggressor.

Interests in using the Salween as a major source of energy have been expressed since the 1970’s, but as of yet there are no hydropower developments on the river’s mainstream. Besides power, serious plans have also revolved around large-scale water diversion. Irrigation, barge transportation (to promote trade and tourism), and related surface infrastructures have also been discussed. Currently, the Salween is a relatively undeveloped basin; however, planners see the basin serving as a major source of water and energy for future social and economic development of Burma and Thailand.

Natural resources are being exploited with alarming rates of environmental degradation. With civil war in Burma, and development project plans, the state of the Salween basin is rapidly deteriorating. It is urgent that the future of the Salween River is responsibly planned and equitably managed to protect the environment and the inhabitants of the watershed. All affected parties at the local, regional, national and international levels must be able to openly communicate and play a role in the future and protection of the river and its surrounding environment.

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