Congo River

Congo River

The Congo River, Africa’s second longest river, was called the Zaire River from 1971 to 1997.
The banks of the river, almost all of its length overgrown with equatorial forests, remained for centuries an unexplored territory for Europeans.

Mouth of the Congo

The mouth of the Congo River was discovered in 1482 by the Portuguese navigator and merchant Diego Cão (1440-1486). He did not make this geographic discovery for scientific purposes but to establish commercial relations with the Kingdom of the Congo, whose economy was based on the slave trade.

Terrible tropical diseases, a harsh climate, impassable swamps and forests, and the hostility of the local population limited European curiosity in exploring these territories until the last quarter of the 19th century.

The first European to reach the upper Congo, the Lualaba River, on March 29, 1871, was the Scotsman David Livingstone. The deteriorating health of the famous African explorer prevented him from drawing a conclusion as to whether the Lualaba belonged to the basin of the Congo or the Nile.

Livingstone’s compatriot, the English journalist Henry Morton Stanley, had already walked most of the Congo River in 1876-1877. Having traveled nearly 5,000 kilometers from east to west Africa on a perilous journey, he reached the mouth of the Congo.

Already under the patronage of King Leopold II of Belgium and at his expense, Stanley founded a number of stations on the banks of the river on a new expedition in 1881.

Flooding throughout the year is a peculiarity of the Congo River.

Origin and Basin

The basin of the Congo River, located in the heart of the African continent, is the second largest in the world. The Lualaba River, which originates near the southeastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is most commonly considered the source of the Congo. But there is an opinion that the source of the Congo is the Chambezi River, which begins near the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika.

The peculiarity of the Congo River is the uniform flow of water throughout the year. This is explained by the fact that the Congo basin is located on both sides of the equator, and therefore the influx of water from the rivers of the Northern Hemisphere, filled with intense summer rains, makes up for the winter shoaling of the southern tributaries of the river.

The Congo basin encompasses the so-called Congo Basin and its marginal plateaus. The river is commonly divided into three main sections. From the headwaters to Stanley Falls is the upper section. From the Stanley Falls to the city of Kinshasa is the middle and then the lower section.

After passing the town of Kongolo, the river crosses the barrier of hard crystalline rocks and makes its way through the gorge, which is rightly called the Gates of Hell. The rapids and waterfalls stretch all the way to the town of Kindu. This is where the rainforest begins which surrounds the river for 2,000 kilometers.

Beyond the town of Kinshasa begins the Livingstone Falls, which are about 40 m high. At its confluence with the Atlantic Ocean, the Congo widens to 11 km and reaches a depth of up to 230 m.

General Information

  • The second largest river in the world in Central Africa, flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Official name: Congo River.
  • Languages spoken in the Congo Basin: French, Portuguese English, Bantu (Congo), Lingala, Sango, Swahili, Rwanda, Rundi.
  • Religion: half of the Congo Basin population is Christian, 48% are aboriginal cultures, and 2% are Muslim.
  • Major cities: Kinshasa, 10,076,099 (2009), Matadi, Mbandaka (Democratic Republic of Congo), Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), Bangui (Central African Republic), Bujumbura (Burundi).
  • Main ports on the Congo River: Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), Kinshasa, Matadi (seaport), Mbandaka, Kisangani, Ubundu, Kindu, Kongolo (Democratic Republic of Congo); on the Ubangi River – Bangui (CAR); on the Kasai River – Ilebo (DRC).
  • Countries in the basin: Democratic Republic of Congo (60% of the basin area); Republic of Congo; Central African Republic, Angola, Zambia, Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania.
  • Main tributaries: Luvua, Lukuga, Lomami, Ruki, Kasai, Aruvimi, Ubangi, and Sanga.
  • Major lakes in the river basin: Tanganyika, Kivu, Bangweulu, Mweru, Mai Ndombe, and Tumba.
  • Area of the basin: 3 680 000 km2.
  • Population: more than 100 million people.
  • Population density: 27 people/km2.
  • Ethnic composition: more than 200 nations.
  • The length of the river: 4344 km – from the source of the Lualaba, 4700 km – from the source of the Chambesi.
  • Highest point: Marguerite Peak (5109 m).
  • Channel width: when flowing into the Atlantic Ocean – 11 km; it drains the ocean for 75 km from the shore.
  • Average annual flow: 1,230-1453 km3 ; solid flow – about 50,000 million tons per year.


  • Hydroelectric power plants, shipping, fishing, oil production.
  • Total length of navigable routes on Congo Basin rivers and lakes about 20,000 km.
  • Four main navigable sections: Bukama – Kongolo (645 km), Kindu – Ubundu (300 km), Kisangani – Kinshasa (1742 km), Matadi – the mouth (138 km).
  • Proven oil reserves are estimated at 1.5 billion barrels.
  • About 400 wells are in operation.
  • Oil is 90% of the export earnings of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • GDP per capita in the DRC in 2009 is about $300.
  • According to environmentalists, about 1.8 million hectares of African rainforest are destroyed each year by agriculture, construction and mining.

Climate and weather

  • Equatorial and subequatorial.
  • Average annual temperature: +22 … +26 ºС.
  • Rainfall: 2000-3000 mm per year.


  • Stanley Falls
  • Livingstone Falls
  • Lakes
  • Virunga, Salonga, Garamba National Parks, etc.
  • National Museum in Kinshasa

Fun Facts

  • The national symbol of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a rare animal living in the tropical forests, the okapi, a relative of the giraffe but lacking such a long neck.
  • The Congo is the only major river that crosses the equator twice.
  • In the upper reaches of the Congo, 7 waterfalls form Stanley Falls, named after Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), the explorer of Africa. Downstream, 32 waterfalls are named after David Livingstone (1813-1873), Stanley’s colleague.
  • The humid equatorial forests of the Congo Basin allow native species such as ebony, mahogany, and oaks to reach heights of 60 meters.
  • In January 2007, the African Union Summit decided to create the African Environment Fund. The British government has allocated about $100 million to preserve the rainforests in Africa. The UK government has committed US$100 million to preserve the tropical forests of the Congo Basin. In total, about $2 billion is required for the program, which will run until 2013.
  • The famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who first described the Congo River and established navigation on it, had no sympathy for the local inhabitants and justified brutal colonial policies.
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