From its highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, to its biggest lake, Victoria, Africa is home to some of the world’s greatest wonders. The second-largest continent after Asia, it’s also where one finds the longest river in the world.
Rivers form vital threads throughout Africa, crossing and sometimes forming its geo-political boundaries. These freshwater bodies have helped form and sustain great civilisations, offering everything from food to transportation. They remain vital today, with newer functions such as hydroelectricity only adding to their significance. They’re a lifeline for wildlife, from fish to mammals, and they support a vast number of ecosystems, including one of the world’s largest rainforests.
In this article, we explore the longest rivers of Africa. And we’re starting with the biggest river in Africa, the Nile.
1. Nile River
Length: 4,130 miles
The Nile is more than a river in Egypt. In fact, as it flows northwards, it passes through or touches eleven countries before emptying into the Mediterranean. These include Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, and, of course, Egypt. In all, it travels around 4,130 miles, making it the biggest river in Africa, and indeed the world.
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of this river in the history and development of the region. It was along the banks of the Nile that the Ancient Egyptians flourished and, in the view of the Greek historian Herodotus, their land was a gift from the river. They named it “Black” or “Ar”, a reference to the colour of its waters or Aur, and relied on it for a myriad of functions, from agricultural irrigation and fishing to transportation and trade. Even today, it’s said that 95% of Egyptians still live within a few miles of the river.
The Congo River
Length: 2,920 miles
Its basin covers an area roughly the size of India; it’s the deepest river in the world; and, with a length of 2,920 miles, the Congo River is the second longest river in Africa. Formerly known as the Zaire River, it begins in Zambia and arcs through eight more countries within West-Central Africa before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. There, it discharges an astonishing 1.25 million cubic feet of water every second.
In addition to helping sustain a population of some 75 million people, the basin of the Congo River runs through the Congo Rainforest. Termed the world’s “second lungs” – after the Amazon – for its carbon dioxide retention, this is also one of the most ecologically diverse areas on the planet.
Length: 2,600 miles
Draining an area encompassing nine countries over roughly 730,000 square miles, the Niger River is an arc of some 2,600 miles through western Africa. Along the way, it’s known by various names, including Kwarra, Isa Eghirren and Joliba. One of the longest rivers in Africa, it’s home to almost 250 species of freshwater fish, many of them endemic to the river. They are joined by three types of crocodile – among them the Nile crocodile – lizards and a variety of birds, including geese, herons, pelicans, and even flamingos.
Length: 2,200 miles
Its name means “great river” and the Zambezi certainly lives up to it. Not only is it the fourth longest of the rivers Africa has to offer , but it’s the longest east-flowing river on the continent and the largest that flows from Africa into the Indian Ocean. Sometimes spelled “Zambesi”, it drains 540,000 square miles of south-central Africa, and flows through or along the boundaries of six countries. Amongst these are Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Amongst its residents, the river counts crocodiles, hippopotamuses, tiger fish and pike. Its route incorporates two hydroelectric dams and, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, one of the world’s largest waterfalls, Victoria Falls.
The Biggest African Rivers
From the biggest river in Africa to the deepest, we’ve seen how the largest rivers Africa has to offer are vital to people, wildlife and the environment.