Africa’s Longest Rivers – The Big Five

Three quarters of Africa’s water resources are concentrated into just 8 major river basins. Of these the five longest rivers are the Nile, Congo, Niger, Zambezi and Orange. The sheer nature of Africa means that many of parts of these rivers remain untamed and wild. They boast between them many world records as you will discover as you read on.

1. The Nile at 6 600 km is not only the longest river in Africa but it is also the longest river in the world and is arguably Africa’s best known waterway. It drains about 10 percent of the whole of Africa, about 3 million square km and has two major tributaries: the White Nile which rises in the great lakes region and has its most distant source in Rwanda, the other tributary being the Blue Nile, its source is in Ethiopia.

They meet near Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. From there the river flows northward through the Sahara desert and finally discharges into the Mediterranean Sea through a large delta. The Nile is the life blood of most Egyptians and the majority of them live on or close to the river. Major settlements on the river include Khartoum, Aswan, Luxor and Cairo.

2. Africa’s second longest river, the Congo flows westwards through central Africa for 4 700 km, nearly 2000 km shorter than the Nile, but what it lacks in length it makes up in volume. Being located in Africa’s largest rainfall belt it discharges a massive 34 000 cubic meters of water a second into the Atlantic ocean, second only in terms of water flow to the Amazon.

It has the largest catchment basin in Africa covering 4.1 million square km, and thanks to some of its canyons, is the deepest river in the world. The source is considered to be the Chembeshi River in Northern Zambia not so far from the source of the eastward flowing Zambezi River.

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The rest of the river lies within the Democratic Republic of Congo or forms part of its border. Major settlements along the way include Kisangani, Mbandaka, Kinshasa and the capital Brazzaville.

3. The Niger River is Africa’s third longest river at 4 180 km and is the principle river of West Africa. Its boomerang shape confused Europeans for 2000 years, as its source is only 240 km from the Atlantic Ocean, in the Guinea Highlands, but the river flows away from the sea into the Sahara Desert of Mali, it then turns near the ancient city of Timbuktu (Tombouctou). From here, it goes southeast through Niger along the Benin border and finally into Nigeria.

Its major tributary is the Benue River which is itself 1400 km long. The Niger discharges into the Atlantic ocean at an area known as the Gulf of Guinea through the densely populated Niger delta an area of approximately 70 000 square km.

An unusual feature of the river is the Niger Inland Delta. This forms where the river suddenly becomes less steep. This makes a region of connected streams, marshes, and lakes over an amount of land the same size as Belgium. The yearly floods make the delta very good for fishing and farming. It is also an important stopover for migrating birds. The Niger drains an area approximately 2.1 million square km.

4. No less impressive but 640 km shorter is the Zambezi River. At 3 540 km it is Africa fourth largest river but is the largest east flowing river in to the Indian ocean. Its catchment basin is 1.4 million square km about half the size of the Nile’s. The source of the Zambezi River lies at about 1 500 m above sea level, very close to the border where Zambia, Angola and the Congo meet. From there it flows through Zambia, Angola, Namibia and Botswana, back into Zambia and Zimbabwe then discharging at its delta in Mozambique.

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Its best known feature is the Victoria Falls, the largest curtain of water in the world and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It boasts one of the largest Conservation areas in the world, the Zambezi Transfontier Conservation Area. Which covers 280 000 square km.

There are two major hydro electrical dams on the Zambezi which provide power to several African countries.

5. A couple of Congo’s tributaries aside the Orange River counts as Africa’s Fifth longest River. Rising in Lesotho it flows for 2 200 km westward through South Africa forming the border between that country and Namibia before it exits at Alexandra Bay into the Atlantic Ocean.

Its catchment basin is approximately 973 000 square km and its major tributary is the Vaal River. The Orange River is a major source hydro electric power and irrigation water. At least 29 dams have been constructed in its basin, the largest of which is Gariep.

It also supplies the Eastern Cape with water via the 83km long Orange Fish Tunnel, the second longest supply tunnel in the world.As it progresses westward it flows through semi arid regions of the Kalahari and Namib deserts which receive less than 50 mm of rainfall per annum therefore contributing little water to its volume.

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by Tony Peel