The Okavango River is among the longest river systems in Africa. The river gets its name from the Kavango (Okavango) people who are located in the northern part of Namibia. It measures about 990 miles and stretches through the territories of three countries, namely Angola, Namibia, and Botswana. The river starts as the Kabongo from the Bie Plateau in Angola which is about 5,000 feet above sea level. It then flows in a southeastward direction across Angola towards Namibia where it makes up part of the boundary between the two countries. The river is later joined by the Kwito River which is its biggest tributary before crossing the Caprivi Strip and going into Botswana. The Okavango River does not flow into the ocean or the sea instead it empties into an endorheic basin in the Kalahari desert, which is known as Okavango Alluvial fan or the Okavango Delta.
The Okavango Alluvial Fan
Once in Botswana, the river widens significantly due to the flat and swampy landscape into which it drains. There it forms the Okavango Alluvial Fan or the Okavango Delta. During the wet season, an outflow through River Boteti seasonally discharges into the Makgadikgadi Pan forming a wide area of swampland. During the year, Angola receives more significant amounts of rainfall compared to Botswana, which sends large amounts of water across Africa. Unlike ordinary cases where floods have negative effects, the massive amounts of water are welcome in the Okavango Delta, which is teeming with life. The floods are most significant between June and August. During this period the Delta swells by up to three times its usual size attracting wildlife from miles away and forming one of the largest wildlife concentrations on the continent.
Formation of the Okavango Delta
The Delta is about 50,000 years old, which makes it relatively young geologically. Before the gradual formation of the Okavango Delta, the river emptied into a lake located in the Makgadikgadi Pan. Experts believe that a massive earthquake in the region later shifted the land close to the borders of present-day Botswana and Namibia thus interrupting the Okavango's obedient flow to the lake. The river, therefore, poured its 11 trillion liters of freshwater into the flat Kalahari landscape creating one of the largest oases on the planet. The Delta remains as wild and undisturbed as it was thousands of years ago due to its floodplains and swamps that have managed to prevent human encroachment into the area. Those visiting the Delta get to watch various types of wild animals such as hippos, elephants, black rhinoceroses, cheetahs, and lions that have adapted to life in the bogs and swamps.
Both Namibia and Botswana experience severe droughts that significantly affect development in both countries. In 1996, the government of Namibia tabled plans to divert a fraction of the river's water to address its freshwater needs. The move led to the straining of diplomatic relations with neighboring Botswana. Botswana argued that the move would adversely affect the flow to the Okavango Delta (a significant source of revenue through tourism). Namibia also has plans to construct a dam and hydroelectric power plant which will affect the otherwise virgin river system.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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