Rivers of the Green Heart of Africa

Tropical Rain Forest. Flower on riverbank - moist forest of the Western Congo Basin at the edge of Minkebe Reserve. Gabon
© WWF / Martin HARVEY

The Congo River, artery of the basin

A leaf dropping in the headwaters of the Congo River will flow more than 4,000 km, bobbing up and down through rapids, massive waterfalls, or more leisurely along some slow currents, until it meets the Atlantic Ocean.

The overall length of the Congo River is 4,380 km, but if one takes the Chambeshi River as the source, the total length reaches 4,670 km 1. That makes the Congo the second longest river of Africa after the Nile and the fifth longest in the world.

Ecological role

The Congo River drains a total watershed area of 3,690,750km2, covering all of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as parts of Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and Angola.2

At the eastern end of the Congo River Basin, swamps and lakes play an important role in regulating the flow of the Congo River.

Because the river’s many large tributaries (including the Lomami, Kasai, Lulonga, Ubangi, Aruwimi, Itimbiri, and Mongala rivers) drain areas with rainy seasons that alternate on either side of the equator, the Congo has a fairly constant flow of water throughout the year.

Course of the Congo River

The waters of the Congo River originate in the highlands and mountains of the East Africa Rift, as well as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru.

The Upper Congo ends at Stanley Falls, a 96-km stretch of rapids. Stanley Falls signals the beginning of the Middle Congo, which runs for 1,609 km, forming a mostly navigable river. In some parts, this stretch can be more than 14 km wide.

After the town of Kisangani, the Congo River turns west and southwest, following a great curve that is devoid of falls or rapids for about 1,750 km. The Middle Congo draws to its end at Stanley (or Malebo) Pool, where the capital cities of Kinshasa (DRC) and Brazzaville (Congo-Brazzaville) are located. There, the river expands some 24 km across and the waters slow down considerably.

The Congo River picks up speed again at the western end of the pool, following 32 rapids known as Livingstone Falls over a distance of 267 m, all the way to the river town of Matadi. It takes a further 160 km of navigable waters to reach the Atlantic Ocean3, provided one can negotiate the whirlpools of the Devil's Cauldron, shifting sandbars and sharp bends in the river. 4

The Congo River is tidal all the way to Boma, some 100 km from the mouth of the river. It merges into the Atlantic Ocean between Banana Point, DRC, and Sharks Point, Angola, from where it continues its course underwater. The riverbed continues offshore with an 800 km-long submarine canyon that reaches a depth of 1,220 m. 5

1 Wikipedia. Congo River. Accessed 08/11/05
2 Wikipedia. Congo River. Accessed 08/11/05
3 Mongabay.com. Rivers, Streams and Creeks. http://www.mongabay.com/0603.htm Accessed: 07/11/05
4 The Columbia Electronic Encyclopaedia. Congo, river, Africa: Course on Fact Monster. © 2000–2005 Pearson Education, publishing as Fact Monster.08 Nov. 2005
5 The Columbia Electronic Encyclopaedia. Congo, river, Africa: Course on Fact Monster. © 2000–2005 Pearson Education, publishing as Fact Monster.08 Nov. 2005

Hydrographic map of the Congo River Basin

Revenga C., Nackoney J., Hoshino E., Kura, Y., Maidens, J. 2003.  Watersheds of the world. IUCN, International Water Management Institute, Ramsar Convention Bureau, WRI. Washington, DC : WRI.

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