Since ancient times, rivers have played a crucial role in the development of human society. These rushing streams of water bring with them the element necessary to grow crops while also providing a supply of relatively clean drinking water. Even technological advancements have moved us beyond the need to build cities near water sources, rivers and waterways still continue to be a critical part of major societal institutions, from the production of electricity to access to food sources.
Asia is a massive continent with rivers interlinking all over its sizable landmass. Historically, its major rivers have played an essential role in providing freshwater, fertile soil, food, and transportation to people many generations past. Even now, the benefits of good land to farm, transportation, and potential energy gathered from watermills still act as an incentive to live near rivers. Plus, rivers continue to house some of the most diverse and endangered wildlife on Earth. Their unique habitat allows for rare plants and animals to take root. And in some areas, the rivers continue to play an important role in people's livelihoods, particularly those of fishers living off the land. From a more ecological perspective, rivers carry water and nutrients and drain surface water. Suffice it to say, rivers are important for many reasons. Here are some of the largest waterways in Asia.
- Yangtze River - 3,915 miles
1. Yangtze River - 3,915 miles
The Yangtze is the largest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world, with a whopping 3,915 miles (6,300 km) of length. It starts in the Plateau of Tibet before moving through 11 provinces to get to the East China Sea. In fact, it also serves as the border for several of these provinces. Most of the river is hard to see as over 75% of it runs through the mountains.
2. Yellow River - 3,395 miles
The Yellow River, also called Huang He, is also in China. It is 3,395 miles (5,464 km) long and starts in the Qinghai province. From there it crosses over six other provinces as well as two autonomous regions to get to the Gulf of Chihli, also called Bo Hai, which is an embayment of the Yellow Sea, itself a part of the North Pacific ocean. Its turbulent dangerous waters have given it the names "China's Sorrow" and "The Ungovernable."
3. Mekong River - 3,050 miles
The Mekong River crosses through many borders, going from southeastern China through Tibet and Yunnan province to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, then finally to Vietnam and draining into the South China Sea. It comprises part of the border between Myanmar and Laos, and Laos and Thailand. It's the longest Southeast Asian river, coming in at 3,050 miles (4,909 km). Its name varies from country to country, but it is most recognized outside of Asia by its Chinese name.
4. Lena River - 2,668 miles
Lena River is found entirely within the borders of Russia and has a total length of 2,668 miles (4,294 km). It is located in the north and is found in an area with plentiful wildlife and natural resources, like gold. The river starts in the Baikal range, slightly east of the Baikal Lake itself, and flows mainly through the Russian Republic of Sakha, eventually joining the Yenisei River before going in a large arc up to the Laptev Sea which is part of the Arctic Ocean, where it ends.
5. Irtysh River - 2,640 miles
The fifth-longest waterway in Asia is the Irtysh River. It originates from glaciers on the Altai Mountains of Xinjiang province in China, right on the border with Mongolia, before passing westward across the northern corner of the Chinese territory and through Kazakhstan, where it flows northwest in the Eastern tip of the country and is known as the Ertis River. It then crosses into Russia before eventually making its way to the Ob River in western Siberia. It comes in at a sizable length of 2,640 miles (4,248 km).
6. Brahmaputra River - 2,391 miles
Brahmaputra River goes through the countries of China, India, and Bangladesh over the course of 2,391 miles (3,848 km). It flows towards the east through the Tibet Autonomous Region of China from its source in the Himalayas then into India to an intersection with the smaller Gange river. From there, the shared stream empties out in the Bay of Bengal. In the course of its journey, it passes through Assam and Bangladesh.
7. Ob River - 2,268 miles
Ob River is 2,268 miles (3,650 km) long and is entirely located within Russia, specifically the central portion. It flows north and west across western Siberia in a corkscrew diagonally down from its head in the Altai Mountains on the border with Kazakhstan, all the way to the Gulf of Ob before going northward into the Arctic Ocean. Its a key transportation route and has a lot of economic potential.
8. Indus River - 2,243 miles
The Indus River is the next one on this list, coming in at 2,243 miles (3,610 km) and going through three countries: China, India, and Pakistan. It is the biggest and most critical river in Pakistan and it has twenty major tributaries. It starts from the Tibetan plateau near Lake Mansarovar and the Himalayas, runs through the Indian territories Jammu and Kashmir, then flows south through the entire country of Pakistan before ending in the Arabian Sea, a part of the Indian Ocean.
9. Yenisei River - 2,167 miles
The Yenisei River goes through Mongolia and Russia and stretches on for 2,167 miles (3,487 km). It is the greatest river system flowing to the Arctic ocean and its course rises in northern Mongolia and goes north through Russia to the Kara Sea. Its upper reaches are sparsely populated as they are prone to rapids and flooding. The middle section, meanwhile, is controlled by a series of large hydroelectric dams.
10. Nizhnyaya Tunguska River - 1,857 miles
The Nizhnyaya Tunguska River runs through Russia and spans 1,857 miles (2,989 km). The river itself is located in western Siberia and flows east off the of the Yenisei River as one of its major tributaries, through the province of Irkutsk province and the Krasnoyarsk region. Parts of the river have a broad valley with numerous sandbanks, and other parts are filled with gorges and rapids.
Climate Change and Pollution
Unfortunately, as is the case with all other natural environments dealing with the encroaching of human civilizaion, the rivers of Asia are not immune to the effects of climate change and pollution. Considering the drastic effects of higher carbon emissions and the ever-increasing pile of human garbage, it makes sense that these major rivers in Asia deal with damaging consequences to their biodiversity.
Climate change and its subsequent increases in temperature will likely intensify the melting of Central Asian glaciers, causing an initial bump in water, but in the long run leading the decreased runoff of rivers. River runoffs refer to all the water that comes into the river system. Runoff cycles will also shift their peak to the early months of the year, leading to decreased flow in the summer months, which potentially could impact local agriculture. Overall the amount of water will decrease, which in combination with heatwaves and monsoons, could make it hard for people the many people in Asia who rely on rivers to subsist.
Many rivers in the region are also already highly polluted with domestic, industrial, and agricultural waste, to the point where the water quality has reached unsafe levels. Some rivers even have mercury levels 100 times more than the legal amount. This has partially happened due to rapid economic development and urbanization, so pollution is likely to continue unabated.
It is clear that more must be done to protect the rivers of Asia, but this will not be easy and will likely take global coordination. Only time will tell if that's possible.