The Okavango River

Okavango Delta wetlands in Botswana.

The Okavango River in southern Africa is an international river flowing through three African countries. It originates in Angola and flows into Namibia, and then into Botswana's Okavango Delta. It supports the livelihoods of around 600,000 people living near its basin, as well as a diversity of wildlife species. Due to water scarcity, which is especially rife in Namibia and Botswana which have arid to semi-arid climates, diplomatic conflicts often flare up over the river's usage.

5. Description

At a length of 1,100 miles, the Okavango River is the fourth longest river system in southern Africa, according to the Okavango River Water Basin Commission (OKACOM). The river’s origin is in the highland plateaus of central Angola at an elevation of 1,780 meters. The Cuito and Cubango Rivers are the Okavango River’s main tributaries, and its basin size is 323,192 square kilometers, and covers large parts of Angola, Namibia, and Botswana. The river’s main flow occurs in the 120,000 square kilometers of the sub-humid and semiarid range-lands in the Cuito-Cubango province of Angola. Then, it concentrates water flow on the fringes of Namibia and Angola before flowing into the 15,000 square-kilometer Okavango Delta, which has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Botswana at an elevation of 980 meters. The river delivers 10 cubic kilometers of surface flow into the delta annually according to the OKACOM.

4. Historical Role

European explorers of the 1800s used the Okavango River to venture ever deeper into the territories of what are now Angola, Namibia, and Botswana, and establish trading hubs there. Charles John Andersson, a Swedish explorer, undertook a voyage through the river in 1861, which led him into what is now central Namibia where he established a trading post in Otjimbingwe, according to the Vanersborgs Museum. Andersson’s commercial ventures were in cattle and ivory and, to protect them, he allied himself with Herero tribe, and built up a 2,500 man army. He also authored a book on the river. When Andersson died, Axel W. Eriksson, a Swedish ornithologist and trader, opened a trading route into the Transvaal through the Okavango River in 1881.

3. Modern Significance

In the three countries it’s shared by, there are around 600,000 people living near the Okavango River and depending on it for sustenance, according to a study by the Research and Information Services of Namibia. Locals living by the river depend on it as artisanal fishermen and fish traders, and use the reeds from the banks for building and craft-making. Small holder farmers near the Okavango River also engage in agriculture, predominately growing maize, sorghum, millet, cassava, and vegetables, as well as raising livestock. Tourism also benefits the nations along the Okavango River economically, and earns a livelihood for many of the locals. In Botswana, there are over 80 lodges, hotels, and camps within the Okavango Delta. These cater to the approximately 120,000 tourists who visit the delta within the Moremi Game Reserve annually according to the Okavango Research Institute in Botswana.

2. Habitat and Biodiversity

The Okavango River flows through varied habitats. In Angola, the river crosses through sub-humid and semiarid rangelands in the Cuito-Cubango province, and into Namibian wetlands. Botswana’s Okavango Delta habitats along the river include permanent and seasonal rivers and lagoons, swamps, marshes, seasonal and flooded grasslands, riparian forests, dry deciduous woodlands, and island communities. These habitats sustain a diverse array of wildlife species. The delta habitats have 1,061 plant, 89 fish, 64 reptile, 482 bird, and 130 animal species within their bounds according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Cheetahs, white and black rhinoceroses, wild dogs, and lions live in these Okavango Delta wetland ecosystem. The delta also harbors 24 species of globally threatened birds, including six vulture species, Southern ground hornbills, Wattled cranes, and Slaty egrets. A significant number of Botswana’s 130,000 elephants also live in the Okavango Delta.

1. Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes

Due to the Okavango River Basin's remoteness in the three countries, there has not been much hydrologic interference for years, according to research conducted by the University of Botswana. But that might change if Namibia, as Africa’s driest country is moving ahead with plans to build a hydroelectric power plant and dam project. In the past, conflicts have arisen between Botswana and Namibia over the usage of the Okavango River’s waters as well. In 1996, Namibia proposed to divert much of the river’s waters to Windhoek, its own capital. That caused Botswana’s government to argue that such an endeavor would reduce flows into the Okavango Delta, which is a RAMSAR-designated wetland and one that supports huge human and wildlife numbers alike, according to an African Water Report.


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