• John Mendelsohn

The Cuando (aka Kwando): a river in its own right!

International convention holds that a river should have one name along its entire course, which is normally the name given at its source. This should be the case for the Cuando, the name used at its source at 13.004 South, 19.127 East in Angola’s Moxico province, rather than Kwando, which is the name widely used downstream in Namibia and elsewhere.

The source of the Cuando River, showing water quality sensors installed by the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP - https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/okavango/). The small pond on the left image is also visible on the right side in the image taken from an aeroplane. Photos: John Mendelsohn.

Getting its name wrong is one part of the Cuando’s mistaken identity. A much bigger problem is the belief that the Cuando is a tributary of the Zambezi River, a notion supported by many publications which repeat the claim that the Cuando normally flows through the Linyanti Swamps into Lake Liambezi, then into the Chobe, and then finally into the Zambezi, just below Kasane.

But this is not the norm; the Cuando is not just a tributary of the Zambezi! In a study for the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), we used LandSat and Sentinel satellite images to study river flows between 1972 and 2021.

CUANDO-State of the basin
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Clear images were available in 40 of those years. In 37 of the years with clear images, the Cuando/Linyanti River stopped flowing south-west of Liambezi, or its flow through the Linyanti Swamp was too small to be discerned clearly. Only in one year – 2009 – was the flow of water from the Cuando and Linyanti into Lake Liambezi probably significant. In two other years, Linyanti water might have mingled with water of the Liambezi.

Water of the Cuando and Linyanti thus rarely flows into Lake Liambezi. The lake is usually fed instead by floodwaters of the Zambezi River which overspill its banks near Katima Mulilo and flow down the Bukalo Channel or that push up the Chobe River from Kasane. Liambezi is a backwater of the Zambezi and has little to do with the Cuando.

The Cubango/Okavango (yellow), Cuando (orange) and Zambezi (purple) River basins, and the rivers and channels that sometimes connect their flows in and around the Linyanti Swamps and Lake Liambezi.

If the Cuando is to be connected to any other river basin, then it would have to be the Cubango/Okavango to which it has more frequent connections than to the Zambezi. Water from the Okavango Delta flowed along the Selinda or Magweqgana Spillway into the Linyanti in 11 years and within a few kilometres of the Linyanti in three others of the 40 years. In 11 years, the Cuando also overspilt via the Savuti Channel into the Savuti Marshes of the Mababe Depression which is sometimes connected to the Okavango Delta via the Khwai River.

All these numbers may seem something of an overkill. I think not, because the true flow, identity, and value of the Cuando needs to be known and emphasised. As a linear oasis, the river is a lifeline for animals, aquatic plants, and people as it traverses the KAZA trans-frontier conservation area. There are few – if any – other rivers that are as unspoilt as the Cuando. This enigmatic, magical river has not been broken by damming, draining or contamination. Let’s keep the Cuando that way.