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Key points

  • Namibia has only five perennial rivers. They all flow along or cross Namibia's borders.
  • The Orange and Kunene rivers flow very strongly at times, delivering torrential flows because they drop steeply to sea level from elevations of 1,600 metres and more. Both can be very muddy, carrying huge sediment loads eroded off their upland catchments. Both are significant to Namibia's welfare. It is the Orange that sorted and exported the best diamonds from Lesotho, South Africa and perhaps Botswana to Namibia, and it is the Kunene that supplies up to 45 per cent of Namibia's electricity and water to about 35 per cent of its population.
  • By contrast, waters of the Okavango, Kwando and Zambezi are clear and placid; their catchments are largely composed of deep infertile sands, their headwaters are only a few hundred metres higher than Namibia's northern borders where they enter the country, and they all flow along a gentle gradient before they leave Namibia.
  • Apart from occasional contributions by the Fish River to the Orange River, all perennial river waters originate from catchments outside Namibia.
  • Namibia has two lake systems (Liambezi and Omadhiya) and one large swamp (Linyanti). Smaller marshes and floodplains fringe the Okavango, Kwando and Zambezi rivers. Ephemeral freshwater wetlands, such as the Nyae Nyae pans around Tsumkwe, Lake Liambezi and pans in the Cuvelai are often extremely productive of plant and animal life.
  • The Cuvelai is a network of about 100 ephemeral channels that flow from Angola into Namibia. They are usually dry, but sporadic floods bring large numbers of fish and water that may eventually flow south into Etosha Pan.
  • Pans and springs are mostly complementary in distribution. Pans, porous aquifers and fossil rivers characterise the flat, sandy areas of eastern Namibia, whereas springs, ephemeral rivers and dams typify the water resources of the hilly, rocky central ridge of the country.
  • Numerous ephemeral watercourses score Namibia's arid landscape. Short-lived periods of flow recharge groundwater, give new life to seeps and springs and replenish dams. This water supports the trees, shrubs and grasses that delineate these linear oases, which birds and other wildlife in turn make their temporary or permanent habitats.
  • All ephemeral rivers that reach the Atlantic Ocean are in the northern half of the coastal plain, with the Kuiseb being the southern-most ephemeral river that occasionally flows to the sea.
  • Tens of thousands of boreholes and deep wells have been drilled or dug to access groundwater. Volumes and qualities of water that aquifers provide vary greatly. The most productive aquifers are in the Stampriet area, in and around the Karstveld and in Ohangwena. Many boreholes elsewhere produce lower but useful yields of water that is potable for people and livestock. However, many others were dry or held little water, or the water is of poor quality with high concentrations of salts, sulphates, fluoride or nitrates.
  • People in Namibia have used a number of approaches to meet their need for water; some have been used more than others in different parts of the country. Over the years, these have included migrating between water sources; digging wells; storing water in containers, tanks, reservoirs and dams; and channelling, piping, pumping and canalising water from rivers and aquifers. More recently, water is recycled, aquifers are artificially recharged and seawater is desalinated.