You Gotta Know These African Bodies of Water


  1. Nile River Usually cited as the longest river in the world, the Nile flows about 4,132 miles in a generally south-to-north direction from its headwaters in Burundi to Egypt's Mediterranean Sea coast, where it forms a prototypical delta. Over 80% of the Nile's flow comes from the shorter Blue Nile headstream, which arises from Ethiopia's Lake Tana and meets the longer White Nile, whose headwaters include Lake Victoria, at Khartoum. At the first of the Nile's six cataracts is the Aswan High Dam, which forms Lake Nasser and greatly reduces the annual floods.

  2. Congo River Africa's second-longest river, it flows in a counterclockwise arc some 2,900 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. The Upper Congo's principal sources are the Lualaba, which rises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province, and Zambia's Chambeshi River. Boyoma Falls (formerly Stanley Falls), a section of seven cataracts near Kisangani, marks the beginning of the Congo River proper. Forming the Malebo Pool near the world capitals of Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the Lower Congo flows past Angola's Cabinda exclave as it enters the ocean. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness depicts the often cruel conditions the Congo basin endured as a Belgian colony.

  3. Zambezi River Weaving across southern Africa, the Zambezi rises in eastern Angola, passes through Zambia, flows along the borders of Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, crosses through Mozambique, and enters the Indian Ocean's Mozambique Channel near Chinde. Namibia's Caprivi Strip was created to allow access the Zambezi. The Cabora Bassa and Kariba Dams form large lakes of the same name. The most spectacular feature of the Zambezi is Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya ("the smoke that thunders"), which is over a mile wide and is the largest waterfall by flow rate in Africa. The fact that the Zambezi separates Zambia and Zimbabwe is a classic trivia question.

  4. Niger River Africa's third-longest, it flows in a great clockwise arc through Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria before entering the Gulf of Guinea. The medieval Mali and Songhai Empires were centered on the Niger, whose course was mapped by Scottish explorer Mungo Park in the 1790s. In Nigeria, it receives the Benue River, its main tributary. The massive Niger Delta, known for its fisheries, wildlife, and petroleum, is an area of increasing social unrest.

  5. Limpopo River Rising as the Crocodile (or Krokodil) River in South Africa's Witwatersrand region, it forms the Transvaal's border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, then crosses through Mozambique. Deforestation in Mozambique contributed to massive flooding of the Limpopo in 2000. Perhaps the most famous description of the Limpopo comes from Rudyard Kipling, who in "The Elephant's Child" referred to it as "the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees".

  6. Okavango River The Okavango flows for about 1,000 miles from central Angola, through Namibia's Caprivi Strip, and into the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. There, rather than flowing into the sea, it terminates in a massive inland swamp known as the Okavango Delta, an area that, especially during the wet season, teems with wildlife in an otherwise inhospitable region.


  1. Lake Victoria The world's second-largest freshwater lake by area, Lake Victoria lies along the Equator and is shared between Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Located on a plateau between two rift valleys, its lone outlet is the Victoria Nile, a precursor of the White Nile. Named by British explorer John Hanning Speke for Queen Victoria, the introduction of the predatory Nile perch in the 1950s has caused environmental degradation, sending many native cichlid species into extinction.

  2. Lake Tanganyika Africa's second-largest lake by area, it is also the second-deepest in the world, surpassed only by Lake Baikal. Due its extreme depth (over 4,700 feet), Lake Tanganyika contains seven times as much water as Lake Victoria. A source of the Lualaba River, it is shared by Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Zambia. On its Tanzanian shore is the town of Ujiji, at which Henry Morton Stanley "found" Dr. David Livingstone in 1871.

  3. Lake Malawi (or Lake Nyasa) Africa's third-largest lake by area and the southernmost of the Great Rift Valley lakes, it is wedged between the nations of Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique. Fed by the Ruhuhu River, its lone outlet is the Shire River, a tributary of the Zambezi. Lake Malawi contains hundreds of species of endemic fish, especially cichlids.

  4. Lake Volta The largest manmade lake, by area, in the world, Lake Volta was created by the construction of Ghana's Akosombo Dam across the Volta River in the 1960s. The lake covers the area where the Black Volta and White Volta rivers formerly converged. The Akosombo Dam can provide over a gigawatt of power, enough to supply nearby aluminum smelters utilizing the energy-intensive Hall-Héroult process and the needs of the rest of the country.

  5. Lake Chad Formerly Africa's fourth-largest lake, its surface area has been reduced by over 90% since the 1960s due to droughts and diversion of water from such sources as the Chari River. The lake is at the intersection of Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, but most of the remaining water is in Chad and Cameroon. Lake Chad is very shallow and has no outlet, so seasonal rainfall causes large fluctuations in its area.

Other notable features include the Orange, Senegal, and Gambia Rivers, Lakes Albert and Rudolf, and the Suez Canal. Notable bodies of water off the African coast include the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Bights of Biafra and Benin, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Gulf of Sidra.

This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Raj Dhuwalia.

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