Thailand is a country in South East Asia occupying parts of the Indochinese and Malay peninsulas. Thailand has an extensive network of rivers with two main river systems the Chao Phraya and Mekong, which form the source or mouth of other rivers in Thailand. Most of the activities in Thailand are centered around these rivers from cultural festivals to economic and domestic activities. These rivers support a broad range of plant and animal species besides being a home to human beings.
Overview of the Major Rivers in Thailand
The Mekong River is the longest at 2,703 miles. The Mekong's source is in China, and from there it flows through five other countries, namely Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, before draining into the South China Sea. The River Salween at 1,491 miles in length flows parallel to the Mekong River with its source in the Tibetan Plateau. The Salween passes through China, Burma, and Thailand the Salween has been listed by UNESCO as a natural world heritage site. River Chi is the longest river flowing within Thailand covering 475 miles with its source in the Phetchabun Mountains and drains into River Mun in Sasaket province. The Mun River travels 466 miles starting in the northern parts of Thailand and flows into the Mekong at Khong Chiam. The Tha Chin River is 474 miles long and is a tributary of Chao Phraya and empties into the Gulf of Thailand.
Biodiversity and Habitats
Rivers in Thailand support a wide variety of both plant and animal species in their river ecosystems. The river system is a home to more than 500 fish species in River Mekong and 140 species in River Salween. These species include, catfish, Hampala salweenensis, fishing cat, Asian small-clawed otter, and turtles such as the Asian pond terrapin, terrapin, and the big-headed turtle in River Salween. The Salween also supports more than 6,000 plant species with around 80 being classified as endangered. The river network in Thailand provides a home for the agricultural and fishing community which relies on the water resources.
In the past, the people of Thailand relied on the rivers for fishing, transport, and as the source of water for irrigation of rice paddies. With the changing times and developments along the course of the river, the people's economic activities have been modified. These economic activities currently carried out include fishing, irrigation, generation of hydroelectric power and trade. Trade is carried out on boats on the rivers and has become a tourist attraction for shopping, the festivals held in water and the riverside. Tourism has encouraged the growth of banks and world class hospitality facilities.
The main threat to the rivers is damming to create hydroelectric power dams. The unregulated construction of dams has altered the seasonal fluctuation of water downstream thus affecting the migration and spawning of fish while destroying their natural habitats, for instance, the habitat of the Irrawaddy dolphins. Overfishing has also reduced the number of fish thus increasing food insecurity since fish is a staple food. Pollution due to intensive farming has led to increased algae growth in River Tha Chi due to the high concentration of nutrients thus reducing food available for fish.
The management and development of these rivers, especially since they are a resource shared by several countries, has sparked a great deal of controversy, and has great economic and environmental impact. These disputes have led some countries breaching the environmental conservation agreements in the pursuit of economic gains. Thailand’s rivers, including Yom, Nam, Ping, and Pa Sak, which are tributaries of the Chao Phraya, and Songkhram, a tributary of the Mekong, are a vital resource to the everyday life of the people of Thailand and should be exploited in moderation for future generations.
There have been disputes between Laos and Thailand over the possession of islands in Mekong River despite the border committee talks. There are disputes between Thailand and Cambodia over sections of the boundary and in 2011 the two counties resorted to war over the location of the boundary. The center of interest was the Preah Vihear ruins that was awarded to Cambodia by ICJ in 1962 and was planned to be listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. When China planned to construct 13 dams along the Salween River that flows through Thailand, China and Burma, there was uproar from environmentalist and the surrounding countries.