The Okavango River: River Of Life

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The Okavango River, like the Nile in Egypt, sustains life in an otherwise inhospitable environment. It sustains human life, plant life, wildlife, birds, insects and the various living organism found in the Okavango River Basin. The Okavango River owes its origin from the Cubango River in the Central Angolan Highlands. Several tributaries join the Cubango of which the major one is the Cuito River.

The confluence of these two rivers at the boundary between Namibia and Angola marks the beginning of the Okavango River. The river is called the Kavango in Namibia and Okavango in Botswana. The distance from the source of the Cubango River to the Cuito confluence is 930 kilometers while the Cuito River is 730 kilometers in length from its source to the confluence.

From Katwitwi village in Namibia, the Kavango River flows in a south-easterly direction covering a distance of 460 km within Namibia. The Kavango becomes Okavango once it flows into Botswana at Mohembo in the North-western part of the country. It is in north-western Botswana that the Okavango River finally forms an alluvial fan commonly referred to as the Okavango Delta.

The Okavango Delta is an extension of the East African Rift System. It lies over a bed of deep and heavy Kalahari sands and its swamps and floodplain areas covers about 16, 000 square kilometers (about three percent of the total surface land area of Botswana), of which half is permanently flooded. In the panhandle, the Okavango River splits into three major tributaries, the Thaoge in the west, the Boro in the middle, and the Ngoge in the east.

These divide further into a series of smaller channels which continually battle for ascendancy hence in the delta, the dryland mingles with wetlands in the ever-changing mosaics of streams, papyrus, termitaria, forests, islands, floodplain, and lagoons. Generally, the Okavango Delta can be divided into four main ecological regions. These regions are: the panhandle, the permanent swamps in the upper regions, the seasonal swamps in the lower regions, and a number of land masses which occur as large islands, which extend into the delta from the surrounding mainland areas and are referred to as sandveld tongues.

The Okavango River and its delta’s mosaic of open water, wetlands and grasslands are home to innumerable species. Some of the species that have been identified include 5 000 insects, 3 000 plants, 540 birds, 164 mammals, 157 reptiles, 80 fish and a countless micro-organism. As a result of its rich natural resource base, the Okavango River and Delta supports thousands of people who directly or indirectly depend on these natural resources for their socio-economic livelihoods.

The rich Okavango ecosystem and its natural resource diversity has partly contributed to the development of human settlements that live along the Okavango River and around the Okavango Delta. There are different ethnic groups that live in the Okavango River Basin. These people relate to the natural resources found in the Okavango River Basin both in Angola, Namibia, and Botswana. In the next issue, this column will discuss the relationship that is traceable amongst the various ethnic groups found in these three countries of Angola, Namibia and Botswana and these people relate and use Okavango Delta to sustain their livelihoods.

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