Asia is the world’s largest, youngest and most populous continent. Covering an estimated 17,226,000 square miles, it’s home to the highest highs and the lowest lows, from the towering Himalayan mountains to the lowest natural point on Earth, the Dead Sea.
This tendency towards the extraordinary doesn’t stop at elevations. From coastlines to climate, Asia has some of the most extreme natural phenomena on the planet. Nowhere is this more evident than with the longest rivers in Asia, many of which number amongst the lengthiest in the world. Want to know more? We’re looking at the largest rivers Asia has to offer. And we’re starting with the biggest river in Asia.
Yangtze River: The Biggest River in Asia
Length: 3,915 miles
In the West, it’s known as the Yangtze River, meaning “child of the ocean”. But in China, that name only applies to one section of the river they call Chang Jiang or “long river”. Whichever name it goes by, this is the longest river in Asia, and the third in line of the longest rivers in the world. It flows for over 3,915 miles through China, from its source in the Tibetan Plateau to its mouth in the East China Sea. Along the way, it passes through some of China’s most populous cities, including Shanghai and Wuhan. In fact, some figures state that around a third of the country’s population resides in its basin.
An important economic artery for China, the Yangtze River is used for transportation, irrigation, and hydroelectric power generation. Construction of the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, the Three Gorges Dam, was completed in 2006, its location along the Yangtze, around 1,000 miles from Shanghai.
The Yangtze basin is among the most biodiverse areas on the planet, home to around 378 species of fish, the Chinese alligator and over 160 other reptiles, as well as many other wildlife species. Pandas are known to live around its upper stretch, while its mid and lower areas have finless porpoises.
Length: 3,395 miles
One of the most iconic rivers in China, and an integral part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, the Yellow River or “Huang He” and its surrounding valley are considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization. It’s also the second-longest river in the country and the second longest Asian river, with a total length of 3,395 miles. The river gets its name from the large amount of loess sediment that it carries, which gives the water a distinct yellow colour.
Originating in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai Province in western China, the Yellow River flows through nine provinces. It then empties into the Bohai Sea near the city of Dongying in Shandong Province. Along the way, it’s an important water source for both agriculture and industry, with more than 60% of its water used for farming alone. The river is also a major source of hydroelectric power, with several large dams built along its length. It is also home to a wide variety of plant and animal life.
Length: 3,050 miles
Originating in the Tibetan Plateau and flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea, the Mekong River is one of the world’s great waterways. With a length of over 3,000 miles, it’s the third biggest river in Asia and the longest in Southeast Asia. It drains an area of 307,000 square miles, annually discharging 114 cubic miles of water.
The Mekong is an important trade and transportation route, as well as a source of food and water for the tens of millions of people living along its banks. Amongst this population, agriculture, particularly rice farming, is by far the most common occupation.
Amongst the most remarkable aspects of this member of the longest rivers in Asia is its biodiversity. Some sources put the Mekong River Basin second only to The Amazon in this respect. For example, it’s home to some 850 species of fish – many endemic to the Mekong – and an extraordinary number of very large fish, like the 16-foot long giant freshwater stingray.
Length: 2,668 miles
From its headwaters in the Baikal Mountain, the River Lena flows northwards some 2,668 miles before emptying into the Arctic Ocean. As well as being one of the longest rivers in Asia, it’s the longest to be situated entirely in Russia and, along with the Ob and the Yenisey, is considered one of the great rivers of Siberia.
The Lena is also one of the coldest rivers in the world, with a temperature that remains below freezing for much of the year. In fact, the Lena is sometimes covered in ice or “Permafrost” for up to six months at a time.
An important source of water for the people of Siberia, the Lena is home to a variety of fish, including salmon, sturgeon, and trout.
Length: 2,640 miles
It’s the principal tributary of the River Ob and, together, they make up one of the world’s biggest river systems. Yet, even on its own merits, the River Irtysh is one of the longest rivers of Asia, and the second longest tributary in the world. Rising from the glaciers of the Altai Mountains, it runs for over 2,640 miles to its outlet in the Arctic Ocean. The path of the Irtysh passes through several countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, and China, its basin covering around 634,000 square miles.
The river Irtysh is an important economic resource for many countries in Central Asia. It is especially important for agriculture, as it provides water for crops and livestock. It’s also a major source of hydroelectric power, and is used for transportation of goods and people.
The Longest Asian Rivers
From farming to hydroelectricity, whether transporting people or freight, the most extensive rivers Asia has to offer play myriad roles in society. They’re also a vital habitat for wildlife, often sustaining an incredible breadth of biodiversity.