The Congo River and Congo River Basin

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Podcast Transcript

Located in the heart of the African continent is one of the world’s largest rivers: the Congo. 

The Congo basin covers much of Central Africa, winds through some of the world’s largest rainforests, and carries more water than any other river, save for the Amazon.

It also has the distinction of being the deepest river in the world.

Learn more about the Congo River, why it is important, and what makes it unique on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

While the fundamental forces behind the formation of rivers are the same everywhere, how rivers end up can be radically different depending on the geography which they flow through. 

The Nile flows through a desert and has few tributaries flowing into it. There are also rapids on the Egypt/Sudanese border, which makes navigation beyond that point impossible.

The Mississippi flows through productive farmland, has many larger tributaries, and has almost no rapids or waterfalls, which makes the river highly navigable. 

The Amazon is enormous and can easily be navigated, but it mainly flows through sparsely inhabited rainforests.

The Congo has a collection of quirks reflecting elements of many other major rivers. 

The Congo River basin is the second largest river basin in the world, the largest being the Amazon. However, even though it is the second largest drainage area, it is a little over half the size of the Amazon Basin. 

The total size of the Congo River Basin is 4,014,500 square kilometers or  1,550,000 square miles. It covers parts of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Zambia, and Tanzania. 

Likewise, it is the second largest river in the world behind the Amazon in terms of total water discharge. The average amount of water that is discharged at its mouth is 41,200 cubic meters per second or 1,450,000 cubic feet per second.

The entire Congo River basin has traditionally been known as “the Congo.” The name is derived from the Kingdom of Kongo, which existed as an independent kingdom for 500 years prior to European colonization in the 19th century. 

The Kingdom of Kongo got its name from the Kongo people, who were a Bantu people who lived in the area of what is today western Angola, the Republic of Congo, and the DRC.

The name Congo was also used by Europeans when they set up their colonies. What is today Angola was known as the Portuguese Congo, the DRC was the Belgian Congo, and the Republic of Congo was the French Congo.

The Belgian Congo and its unique and horrible history will be an episode of its own in the future. 

Two modern countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, have adopted very similar names, which often leads to a great deal of confusion, especially because the people from both countries are known as Congolese. 

I was in East Timor once when I met a UN peacekeeper who said he was Congolese. I asked him which one, when he smiled because most people don’t know the difference. He said “Congo-Kinshasa,” as the two Congos are often described by their capital cities.

Speaking of capital cities, both the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo both have capital cities on the Congo River: Brazaville and Kinshasa. In fact, they lie directly across the river from each other, making them the only two capital cities of countries that border each other. 

However, despite being the largest city in each country, there is no bridge connecting Kinshasa and Brazaville. There has been talk of building one for decades, but no action has ever been taken. A proposed bridge has been planned and stopped several times over the last 30 years. 

As of right now, the bridge is on track again, and construction is scheduled to start in 2023 and end in 2028. 

The lack of a bridge between the capitals isn’t the only bridging problem. There are almost no bridges anywhere on the Congo or its larger tributaries. There is a suspension bridge at the city of Matadi in the DRC where the DRC is on both sides of the river, but that is about it.

There are ferries that cross the river, but they can’t handle the same amount of traffic as a bridge. 

The lack of bridges crossing the Congo has been a huge impediment to economic growth in the region. It makes the river serve as a barrier more than as a conduit for trade.

Speaking of trade, here is where I have to address one of the biggest problems with the Congo and one of its defining features: its rapids. 

If you could take a boat far upriver and sail it all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean, the economics of the Congo Basin would be radically different. The problem is, you can’t. 

The biggest problem is Livingstone Falls. Usually, major rivers like the Mississippi or Amazon will only have waterfalls far upstream near the river’s source.

Livingstone Falls is actually pretty far downstream, 80 kilometers downstream from the two capitals, and it technically isn’t one big waterfall like Victoria Falls or Niagara Falls. It is a stretch of river which is 220 miles or 350 kilometers long; along that stretch, the river drops 900 feet or 270 meters.

Because of the sheer amount of water the Congo carries, this would be the largest waterfall in the world in terms of volume if you consider it to be a waterfall. 

Livingstone Falls also can narrow to only 300 meters, which means all that water has to go somewhere, and the place it goes is down. There are parts of Livingstone Falls where the water depth can reach 720 feet or 220 meters. 

This makes the Congo the deepest river in the world. 

Below Livingstone Falls, the Congo also has another unique feature for rivers of its size. It doesn’t really have a delta. You don’t see a series of channels spreading out in a fan shape as you do in comparable rivers around the world. 

Likewise, there are no major cities near the mouth of the river. Soyo, Angola, has a population of 200,000, and the small seaport of Banana in the DRC, yes, that is its name, has a population of a bit over 3,000.

The ecosystem in the Congo Basin is the biggest thing that sets the Congo apart from other rivers, save for the Amazon. 

The Congo basin is home to the world’s second-largest contiguous rainforest ecosystem. 

The rainforest and the volume of the Congo river are due to the enormous amounts of rainfall that falls in the Congo Basin. There are actually two rainy seasons each year, which is responsible for the enormous amount of rain.

At least 10,000 species of plants are known to live in the Congo Basin. The Congo rainforest is home to 8% of the forest carbon in the world.

Within the rainforest are a host of animal species that are found nowhere else on Earth. These include the African forest elephant, pygmy hippopotamuses, western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and many, many others. 

There are still probably thousands of unknown species which have yet to be discovered in the Congo Basin. Salonga National Park in the DRC is the size of Belgium and still hasn’t been thoroughly sampled.

The river itself is also the home of the greatest amount of fish diversity of any river in the world. Over 800 species of fish have been discovered today, and because of the various rapids on the river, different sections of the river are smaller ecosystems. 

There are currently about 80 million people who live within the Congo Basin, and about half of them still live mostly traditional lifestyles.

Despite Livingston Falls preventing access to ocean ports, it is mostly navigable above the falls. The few other waterfalls on the river are bypassed by short railways. 

The amount of water that flows through the Congo makes it one of the greatest potential sources of hydroelectric power on Earth. 13% of the entire hydroelectric potential on Earth is within the Congo. 

The potential for hydroelectric generation on the Congo is so great that it could, in theory, meet the power needs of all of sub-Saharan Africa.  

There currently are 40 hydroelectric dams on the Congo and its tributaries. The largest are the Inga I and II dams which are located just downstream of Livingstone Falls. Collectively, the two dams can produce 1.8 gigawatts of electricity.

There is talk of creating a super project known as the Grand Inga dam, which, if completed, could produce up to 70 gigawatts of power. If it were to be built, it would be the world’s largest dam, potentially producing three times the electricity of the Three Gorges Damn in China.

The estimated cost of the dam is $80 billion dollars.

The Congo isn’t as well known as the world’s other great rivers. This is mostly due to its inaccessibility because of the rainforest and its lack of impact on world trade due to Livingstone Falls. 

Nonetheless, for the 80 million people who call the Congo Basin home, it is the most important river in the world.