The Congo River, formerly known as the Zaire, is one of the most important rivers in the world running across six major African nations. It originates in the equatorial highlands, flows the length of Africa’s largest rain forest, and drains into the Atlantic Ocean on the continent’s west coast. Congo is the second largest river in the world by discharge volume; the second longest river in Africa; and the deepest river in the world. It has the second largest river basin in the world which is home to some of the largest undisturbed stands of tropical rain forest on the planet. The Congo River Basin is one of the most species-rich habitats of the world and it is home to numerous species of plants, mammals, birds and fishes. Moreover, it is also home to around 75 million people and 150 distinct ethnic groups. The Congo has a lot of untapped potential. Among other things, it is the world’s greatest reserve of untapped hydro-power; and could help improve the food and water situation in Africa. Know about the geography, history, significance and ecology of the Congo River through these 10 interesting facts.


#1 Congo river is named after the ancient Kingdom of Kongo

The Congo River is named after the ancient Kingdom of Kongo, which was once upon a time located in west central Africa in present-day northern Angola. The name of the kingdom comes from the fact that the founders of the kingdom were KiKongo speaking people, a language spoken by the indigenous tribes like the Bantus and Ndundu people. Before the Portuguese invaders abolished the titular monarchy in 1857, the Kingdom of Kongo was an independent state. It is due to the Portuguese translation of the word Kongo, that the spelling of Congo starts with a C. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo (Congo Republic), both countries lying along the banks of the River Congo, take their name from the river. Moreover, the Republic of the Congo, a sovereign state that existed from 1960 to 1971 and which today is part of DRC, also took its name from the river.

Kingdom of Kongo Map
Map of the Kingdom of Kongo, 1711


#2 Congo is the second largest river in the world by discharge volume

The River Congo is 2,900 miles (4,700 km) long making it the second longest river in Africa after Nile and the ninth longest river in the world. In terms of discharge, the Congo had an average annual discharge of around 41,200m3/s (1,454,964.27 cubic ft/s). This makes it the second largest river in the world by discharge volume after Amazon. The average discharge of Congo is more than twice the annual discharge of the much longer River NileThe Congo is also the deepest river in the world. At its deepest point, the river reaches a depth of approximately 220 meters (720 feet). This depth makes the Congo about 64 feet deeper than the second deepest river in the world, which is the Yangtze River in China. According to research, the Lower Congo might contain the deepest part of the river.

The 10 longest rivers in the world
The 10 longest rivers in the world


#3 It is the only major river to cross the Equator twice

Congo River runs its course through the rain-forest and crosses the equator two times. Equator is an imaginary line which intersects our Earth equidistant from its poles and thus, divides it into northern and southern hemispheres. The Congo rises in the southern hemisphere and thereafter, takes a route north-eastward. During this portion of its route, it crosses into the Northern Hemisphere and thus, also crosses the Equator. Its course then takes the form of a giant anticlockwise arc and starts flowing towards south-west. It thus crosses the equator for the second time, back into the Southern Hemisphere. As the Congo basin is located in the equatorial belt, it receives substantial rainfall throughout the year. The Congo thus does not have great seasonal fluctuations. Instead it has a stability in water level because part of its watershed is always in the rainfall zone.

Congo River Course
Course of the Congo River


#4 It is formed by the waters of the Lualaba River and the Chambeshi River

The headwaters of Congo begin in the East African Rift, an active continental rift zone in East Africa. The Congo is formed by two main tributaries: the Lualaba River in the DRC and the Chambeshi River in Zambia. The Lualaba River is the greatest river source of the Congo River by volume of water while the Chambeshi River is the longest river source of the river. The Lualaba River begins in the highlands region of the East African Rift, where it is fed by a number of waterways including waters from Lake Mweru and Lake Tanganyika. The Chambeshi River begins in the northeastern region of Zambia. It is longer of the two main tributaries and thus it is regarded as the source of the Congo in line with the international practice of using the longest tributary as the head-stream. The Congo annually transports 86 million tonnes of suspended sediment to the Atlantic Ocean and an additional 6% of bed-load.


#5 Capitals cities of DRC and Congo Republic lie on its opposite sides

The Congo is divided into Upper, Middle and Lower Congo. After rising in the highlands of East African Rift, the Upper Congo ends at Boyoma Falls (Stanley Falls). The Middle Congo mostly runs northwest from the city of Kisangani. After gradually bending southwestwards, the Middle Congo ends at Pool Malebo (Stanley Pool). The capital cities of DRC and the Congo Republic; Kinshasa and Brazzaville respectively; are located on the opposite sides of the river at the Malebo Pool. The Lower Congo narrows from this point, picking up speed and descending hundreds of meters in a series of rapids known as the Livingstone Falls. Finally, it merges into the Atlantic Ocean near the town of Muanda. The Congo has several major tributaries. In its upper course, it is known as the Lualaba River; and its main tributaries are Luvua and Chambeshi. The main tributaries of Middle Congo on the left are Kwa-Kassai, Tshuapa and Lomami; while its principal right bank tributaries are Lefini, Sangha and Ubangi. The lower course of the Congo constitutes two significant tributaries both on the left side, namely, the Kwilu and the Inkisi.

Congo River Sunrise
Sunrise on the Congo river, between the CR and the DRC, near Mossaka


#6 It has the second largest river basin in the world

The total drainage area of the Congo is estimated to be around 1,440,501 sq miles (3,730,881 sq km). It has the second largest drainage basin for a river behind Amazon, which has a drainage basin of 2,372,670 sq miles. Ten states possess parts of the Congo Basin: DRC (62%); Central African Republic (11%); Angola (8%); Congo Republic (7%); Zambia (5%); Tanzania (4%); Cameroon (2%); and Gabon, Burundi and Rwanda (each less than 1%). It thus covers around 13% of the entire African landmass. Moreover, the Congo river basin is home to the second largest rain-forest in the world. The Congo rain-forest has been home to forest dwelling hunter-gatherers, tribes and indigenous groups like the Pygmies, African ethnic groups whose average height is unusually short; and the Bantus, several hundred indigenous ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Especially, Bantus have lived along the Congo for at least two thousand years, supporting themselves with fish from the river and farms on the fertile lands between the river and forest.

Congo Drainage Basin Map
Map showing the Congo Drainage Basin


#7 The Congo basin is one of the most species-rich habitats of the world

The Congo River Basin is regarded as one of the most significant ecological areas in the world due to its biodiversity. It is home to 10,000 species of tropical plants, 400 species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish. Many of these species are endemic to the region. For example, 80% of the fish species found here are found nowhere else in the world. The Congo basin is also home to 75 million people and 150 distinct ethnic groups. Humans have inhabited the region for more than 50,000 years and the basin continues to provide food, fresh water and shelter to its human inhabitants. However, the activities of the humans living in the region have became a threat to the flora and fauna. Due to this, many of the endemic species residing in the basin are on the verge of extinction. Endangered animals in the Congo Basin include Cross River Gorilla, Mountain Gorilla, Eastern Lowland Gorilla, Western Lowland Gorilla, Chimpanzees, Forest Elephant and Bonobos.

Male Bonobo in Apenheul Primate Park, Netherlands


#8 Congo rain-forest is critical for reducing global warming

The forests in the Congo basin act as the second “lung” of the planet after the rapidly dwindling Amazon rain-forests. They trap the carbon which would otherwise become carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming. The Congo holds around 8% of the forest-based carbon in the world. It thus holds an equivalent to 39 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This implies that the Congo basin is critical to the future of climate stability. Unfortunately, this critical ecosystem is facing massive threats. Among other things, logging and mining is eating away the forest at the rate of 2,000 square kilometers per year. When the capacity of the ecosystem to store and release water is degraded, the river flow will also decline threatening the very existence of the rain-forest. Moreover, climate change is further reducing rainfall in many regions along the river. If the Congo is not preserved, it might have a drastic adverse effect on the environment of the earth.

Congo Rainforest
A part of the Congo Rainforest


#9 It is the world’s greatest reserve of untapped hydro-power

The Congo River is the most powerful river in Africa and is highly voluminous in nature. The Congo allows 50,000 cubic meters (1,800,000 cu ft) of water per second to flow into the Atlantic Ocean during the rainy season. As a result, it has tremendous opportunities to generate enormous hydro-power. Since Congo’s basin has presence of steep gradients and turbulent waterfalls, hydropower can be easily derived from the energy of falling or fast-running water and harnessed for useful purposes. At present, there are about forty hydropower plants in the Congo Basin. The largest of them are Inga I and Inga II, collectively known as Inga Dams. The two dams were launched in the early 1970s and generate 1,776 MW of energy. In February 2005, Eskom, a South African state-owned power company, announced a construction plan of a new hydroelectric dam which is expected to generate 40 Gigawatts of energy, twice that of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Moreover, it is estimated that the Congo, with its roaring waters, has the potential to provide hydro-electricity for the entire African continent. However, much of this potential is untapped.

Inga Dam I
The 350 MW Inga Dam I in the DRC


#10 Congo could help improve the food and water situation in Africa

The Congo has an annual discharge of 1.3 trillion cubic meters. This is around 10 times of the annual discharge of the Nile. The river thus contains one-third of the fresh water in Africa. Apart from this, the Congo could also help irrigate about 60,000 square kilometers of agricultural land and improve the precarious food situation in the continent. Unfortunately, this potential is largely untapped. For example, only 26% of the population in DRC enjoy adequate access to clean drinking water; and all ten nations which contain part of the Congo basin, are net importers of food, including grain, maize and rice. The Congo River is also the primary means of transport in the region it flows through. The roads in the area are poor, the railways run down and the flights too expensive for the people. Many of the remote settlements in the region are only accessible by water, making the river the only way to travel for a significant population. Commerce is also heavily dependent on the waterway as it is the chief means through which the goods are transported. However, the shipping infrastructure of the river is hugely deficient with ports lying in ruins; no warning signs; and frequent occurrence of accidents.


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