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How critical is Africa’s Zambezi Basin?

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The Zambezi River and its drainage basin is a lifeforce snaking through large parts of Southern Africa. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

How critical is Africa’s Zambezi Basin?

The Zambezi Basin covers a massive chunk of land in Southern Africa and has become an area of critical importance to the world. How will African countries within this basin manage its inevitable development?  

By Lourens Snyders for WhyAfrica 

WhyAfrica travelled more than 7000km in July and August, following the Zambezi River for more than 1800km and traversing large parts of the Zambezi Drainage Basin to find out just how critical this area has become to the world.

The focus of WhyAfrica’s recent Road Trip through Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, and South Africa was to gather more information and data about mineral exploration and mining, agricultural development, tourism potential, the state of infrastructure, water and environmental management, and the impact of climate change and development on the environment and communities inhabiting the Greater Zambezi Basin.

The Zambezi Basin covers a massive land area of more than 1,390,000km2. The drainage area encompasses large parts of Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, crossing regions of high population densities, conservation areas, regions of low population densities, important mining areas, agricultural regions, and buffer zones.

At times its river systems traverse areas where the human population is scant as in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, for example. This area protects large parts of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, south-east Angola, south-west Zambia, the northern parts of Botswana and western Zambia. The basin also drains the Cameia National Park in Angola which covers a surface area of about 14,450km2 where the human population is relatively low.

Supplier of fresh water, fish, and electricity (How critical is Africa’s Zambezi Basin?)   

The northern parts of Cameia are traversed by the historic Benguela rail line which is being upgraded to form part of Angola’s Lobito Corridor that will eventually link the west coast of Angola at the Port of Lobito with Dar Es Salaam on the east coast of Tanzania. WhyAfrica followed this rail line for more than 300km where it forms the northern boundary of the great wetlands of the Cameia National Park, another outflow of the Zambezi’s drainage basin.

This massive river basin and drainage area is an extremely important supplier of fresh water, electricity, and fish, not only to the local communities living within the basin, but to the entire southern African region.

The Zambezi Basin is home to immense plains and wetlands and regulates the climate and rich ecosystems of the savannas and humid forests that surround it. In addition, two major sub-basins in the Zambezi basin are interconnected with other major African systems namely the Lake Malawi/Nyassa/Shire River sub-basin (WhyAfrica also visited Lake Malawi) and the perennial river bifurcation in the Selinda Spillway (or Magwegana River) in the Cuando River sub-basin, which connects the Zambezi Basin to the Kalahari Basin.

How will we balance development and conservation? (How critical is Africa’s Zambezi Basin?)     

Apart from its importance to the region’s communities and ecosystems the area also boasts spectacular geology, extremely fertile soils, and attractions with huge tourism potential. Extensions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) and Zambian Copperbelts (copper and cobalt are now recognised as “critical” minerals) reach far into the heart of the Zambezi Basin, while rare and critical metals and minerals of global significance have been discovered in the highlands, lowlands, wetlands, and savannas of the basin and its sub-basins.

Thus, the Zambezi Basin is critical not only to the region, but to the whole world. There is no doubt that development will benefit some of the poorest communities in Africa. It will provide employment and result in the development of critical infrastructure with immense knock-on effects. The question is how will we balance development and conservation and how will all this affect sensitive ecosystems and local communities living in an area where extreme weather events have already made an impact?

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How critical is Africa’s Zambezi Basin?


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How critical is Africa’s Zambezi Basin?



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AgricultureEnvironmental Management & Climate ChangeEnergyESGInfrastructureMiningPolitical EconomyTourism and ConservationWater Management