Congo River

Congo River
The Congo River
The Congo River near Mossaka
Countries Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia
Mouth Atlantic Ocean
Length 4,700 km (2,920 mi) [1]
Basin 4,014,500 km2 (1,550,007 sq mi) [1]
 - average 41,000 m3/s (1,447,901 cu ft/s) [1]
 - max 75,000 m3/s (2,648,600 cu ft/s) [1]
 - min 23,000 m3/s (812,237 cu ft/s) [1]

The Congo River (also known as the Zaire River) is a river in Africa, and is the deepest river in the world, with measured depths in excess of 230 m (750 ft).[2][3] It is the second largest river in the world by volume of water discharged, though it has only one-fifth the volume of the world's largest river, the Amazon. Additionally, its overall length of 4,700 km (2,920 mi) makes it the ninth longest river.

Its drainage basin covers 4,014,500 square kilometres (1,550,000 sq mi).[1] The Congo's discharge at its mouth ranges from 23,000 cubic metres per second (810,000 cu ft/s) to 75,000 cubic metres per second (2,600,000 cu ft/s), with an average of 41,000 cubic metres per second (1,400,000 cu ft/s).[1]

The river and its tributaries flow through the Congo rainforest, the second largest rain forest area in the world, second only to the Amazon Rainforest in South America. The river also has the second-largest flow in the world, behind the Amazon; the third-largest drainage basin of any river, behind the Amazon and Río de la Plata rivers; and is one of the deepest rivers in the world, at depths greater than 230 m (750 ft).[2][4] Because large sections of the river basin lie above and below the equator, its flow is stable, as there is always at least one part of the river experiencing a rainy season.[5]

The Congo gets its name from the ancient Kingdom of Kongo which inhabited the lands at the mouth of the river. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, both countries lying along the river's banks, are named after it. Between 1971 and 1997 the government of then-Zaire called it the Zaire River.

The Congo river at Maluku.
A statue depicting the Congo river in Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, Belgium. Belgium was the colonial power of Belgian Congo from 1908-1960.

The sources of the Congo are in the highlands and mountains of the East African Rift, as well as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru, which feed the Lualaba River, which then becomes the Congo below Boyoma Falls. The Chambeshi River in Zambia is generally taken as the source of the Congo in line with the accepted practice worldwide of using the longest tributary, as with the Nile River.

The Congo flows generally northwards from Kisangani just below the Boyoma falls, then gradually bends southwestwards, passing by Mbandaka, joining with the Ubangi River, and running into the Pool Malebo (Stanley Pool). Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville) and Brazzaville are on opposite sides of the river at the Pool, where the river narrows and falls through a number of cataracts in deep canyons (collectively known as the Livingstone Falls), running by Matadi and Boma, and into the sea at the small town of Muanda.

The Congo River Basin is one of the distinct physiographic sections of the larger Mid-African province, which in turn is part of the larger African massive physiographic division.


Economic importance

The beginning of the Livingstone Falls near Kinshasa.

Although the Livingstone Falls prevent access from the sea, nearly the entire Congo is readily navigable in sections, especially between Kinshasa and Kisangani. Large river steamers worked the river until quite recently. The Congo River still is a lifeline in a land without roads or railways.[6]

See Congo River Steamers

Railways now bypass the three major falls, and much of the trade of Central Africa passes along the river, including copper, palm oil (as kernels), sugar, coffee, and cotton. The river is also potentially valuable for hydroelectric power, and the Inga Dams below Pool Malebo are first to exploit the Congo river.

Hydro-electric power

The Congo River is the most powerful river in Africa. During the rainy season over 50,000 cubic meters of water per second flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Opportunities for the Congo River and its tributaries to raise hydropower are therefore enormous. Scientists have calculated that the entire Congo Basin accounts for thirteen percent of global hydropower potential. This would provide sufficient power for all of sub-Saharan Africa's electricity needs.[7]

Currently there are about forty hydropower plants in the Congo Basin. The largest is the spectacular Inga Falls, about 200 km southwest of Kinshasa. The prestigious Inga Project was launched in early 1970 to build the first dam. Four additional dams and the construction of a gigantic dam would have a capacity of 34,500 megawatts, constituting nearly three times the capacity of all current Belgian power plants together. To date only two dams have been built the Inga I and Inga II, of which constitute fourteen turbines.[7]

In February 2005, South Africa's state-owned power company, Eskom, announced a proposal to increase the capacity of the Inga dramatically through improvements and the construction of a new hydroelectric dam. The project would bring the maximum output of the facility to 40 GW, twice that of China's Three Gorges Dam.[8]

It is feared that these new hydroelectric dams could lead to the extinction of many of the fish species that are endemic to the river.[9]

Natural history

Satellite picture of Brazzaville, Kinshasa and the Malebo Pool of the Congo River. (When opened, this image has annotations. Move the mouse pointer over the image to see them.)

The Congo River was formed many years ago during the Pleistocene.[10]

The Congo's formation may have led to the allopatric speciation of the bonobo and the common chimpanzee from their most recent common ancestor.[11] The bonobo is endemic to the humid forests in the region, as are other iconic species like the Allen's swamp monkey, dryas monkey, aquatic genet, okapi and Congo Peafowl.[12][13]

In terms of aquatic life, the Congo River Basin has a very high species richness, and among the highest known concentrations of endemics.[2] Until now, almost 700 fish species have been recorded from the Congo River Basin, and large sections remain virtually unstudied.[14] Due to this and the great ecological differences between the regions in the basin, it is often divided into multiple ecoregions (instead of treating it as a single ecoregion). Among these ecoregions, the Lower Congo Rapids alone has more than 300 fish species, including approximately 80 endemics[9] while the southwestern part (Kasai Basin) alone has about 200 fish species, of which about a quarter are endemic.[15] The dominant fish families–at least in parts of the river–are Cyprinidae (carp/cyprinids, such as Labeo simpsoni), Mormyridae (elephantfishes), Alestidae (African tetras), Mochokidae (squeaker catfishes), and Cichlidae (cichlids).[16] Among the natives in the river is the huge, highly carnivorous giant tigerfish. Two of the more unusual endemic cichlids are the whitish (non-pigmented) and blind Lamprologus lethops, which is believed to live as deep as 160 metres (520 ft) below the surface,[9] and Heterochromis multidens, which appears to be more closely related to cichlids of the Americas than other African cichlid.[17] There are also numerous endemic frogs and snails.[16][18] Several hydroelectric dams are planned on the river, and these may lead to the extinction of many of the endemics.[9]

Several species of turtles, and the slender-snouted, Nile and dwarf crocodile are native to the Congo River Basin.


Sorted in order from the mouth heading upstream.

Course and Drainage basin of the Congo River with countries marked
Course and Drainage basin of the Congo River with topography shading.


  • 1837: Silence - A Fable is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, written in 1837 (see: bibliography). Although the first paragraph of this story contains the sentence: "The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire." it would not immediately appear to refer to the Equatorial-African River Zaire (River Congo), as the River Zaire of the story is described as being in Libya, which is in North Africa. It may be, however, that, given the level of geographical knowledge of Africa at the time of writing, the name Libya is used as a generic name for the African continent. In this case the story may, in fact, be an attempt to describe the River Congo of Equatorial Africa.
  • 1914: American poet Vachel Lindsay portrays a dark and savage society around the Congo River in his 1914 poem The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race.
  • 1980: The Congo River is featured in a chapter of Michael Crichton's novel Congo (published in 1980), as well as in the 1995 film based on the book.
  • 1995: The Congo River is featured in the action film Congo, by director Frank Marshall, although it is not mentioned by name in the film. The film is based on the 1980 novel of the same name by Michael Crichton.
  • 1996: British author Redmond O'Hanlon has a travelogue published by Penguin Books under the title of Congo Journey (1996).
  • 2006: The river's history is discussed in the book Brazza, A Life for Africa (by Maria Petringa, Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006).
  • 2007: The Congo River and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the scenario for the 2007 book Blood River by journalist Tim Butcher[19], based on his intrepid travels up and down Africa's second longest river. Blood River was an attempt to retrace Henry Morton Stanley's trip down the Congo River, documented in Through the Dark Continent (first published, 1878), and was shortlisted for the 2008 British Book Awards.
  • 2010: The Congo River is a central element in the 2010 novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), a fictionalisation of episodes in the life of the Irishman Roger Casement. The book is to be published in English in 2012.
  • undated: Silence, A Fable was a radio drama adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's 1837 short story of the same name.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Bossche, J.P. vanden; G. M. Bernacsek (1990). Source Book for the Inland Fishery Resources of Africa, Volume 1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. p. 338–339. ISBN 9789251029831. 
  2. ^ a b c Dickman, Kyle (2009-11-03). "Evolution in the Deepest River in the World". Science & Nature. Smithsonian Magazine. 
  3. ^ The Congo Project, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)
  4. ^ "[Fish of the Congo]". Explorer. National Geographic Channel. 2009.
  5. ^ The Congo River
  6. ^ See, for instance, Thierry Michel's film Congo River
  7. ^ a b Alain Nubourgh, Belgian Technical Cooperation (BTC)
  8. ^ Vasagar, Jeevan (2005-02-25). "Could a $50bn plan to tame this mighty river bring electricity to all of Africa?". World news (London: The Guardian).,12292,1425023,00.html. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  9. ^ a b c d Norlander, Britt (April 20, 2009). Rough waters: one of the world's most turbulent rivers is home to a wide array of fish species. Now, large dams are threatening their future. Science World
  10. ^ Leonard C. Beadle (1981). The inland waters of tropical Africa: an introduction to tropical limnology. Longman. p. 475. ISBN 9780582463417. Retrieved 2 April 2011. 
  11. ^ Caswell JL, Mallick S, Richter DJ, et al (2008). "Analysis of chimpanzee history based on genome sequence alignments". PLoS Genet. 4 (4): e1000057. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000057. PMC 2278377. PMID 18421364. 
  12. ^ Kingdon, J. (1997). The Kingdon Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press Limited, London. ISBN 0-12-408355-2.
  13. ^ BirdLife International (2008). "Afropavo congensis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 2 May 2011. 
  14. ^ Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Sudanic Congo - Oubangi. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  15. ^ Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Kasai. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  16. ^ a b Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Upper Lualaba. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  17. ^ Kullander, S.O. (1998). A phylogeny and classification of the South American Cichlidae (Teleostei: Perciformes). Pp. 461-498 in Malabarba, L., et al. (eds.), Phylogeny and Classification of Neotropical Fishes, Porto Alegre.
  18. ^ Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (2008). Lower Congo Rapids. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  19. ^ Paul Theroux (27 May 2011). "The places in between". Financial Times. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 

External links

Coordinates: 6°04′45″S 12°27′00″E / 6.07917°S 12.45°E / -6.07917; 12.45

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