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Home The River Basin People and the River Governance Resource Management
The Limpopo River Basin
Climate and Weather
 Principles of Hydrology
 Hydrology of the Limpopo Basin
Surface Water
 SW/GW Interactions
 Water Balance
 Hydrology of Southern Africa
Water Quality
Ecology and Biodiversity
Sub-basin Summaries



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Hydrology of the Limpopo River Basin: Surface Water  

Rivers and Streams

The Limpopo River begins at the confluence of the Marico and Crocodile Rivers in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, it flows north to form the border with Botswana where it arcs east, and is joined by the Shashe River to form the border with Zimbabwe.  From here it flows down the Great Escarpment and east into Mozambique at Pafuri, across the coastal plateau to the Indian Ocean at Xai Xai.  

The Olifants River originates near Witbank, to the east of Johannesburg, running east, across the southern portion of the basin, to join the Limpopo River in Mozambique just after Massingir Dam.

The River basin has 24 distinct, main tributaries, which are listed in the table below; however, the Joint Limpopo River Basin Study Scoping Phase report proposes a further subdivision to create 27 more equally sized and geographically homogenous sub-basins.

The contributions to the overall flow of the Limpopo River are somewhat determined by rainfall.  Estimates of mean annual rainfall per sub-basin are presented in the Climatic Patterns section of the Climate of the Limpopo River basin.  However, the majority of the surface water flow originates in the Drakensberg Mountains and South African highveld (Leira et al. 2002), feeding the Crocodile, Marico and Olifants Rivers. 

Surface water resources of the Limpopo River basin.
Source: Hatfield 2010
( click to enlarge )

Limpopo River tributaries ranked by estimated present-day Mean Annual Run-off.

Country Tributary Catchment Area (km²) Naturalised Runoff (million m³) Denaturalised Runoff (million m³) Unit Runoff (denat. MAR) (mm)
South Africa Marico 13 208 172 50 3.8
South Africa Crocodile 29 572 391 205 6.9
Botswana Notwane 1 853 55 24 1.4
South Africa Matlabas 3 448 382 21 6
South Africa Mokolo 7 616   117 15.4
Botswana Bonwapitse 9 904 15 15 1.5
Botswana Mahalapswe 3 385 13 13 3.9
South Africa Lephalala 4 868 150 99 20.3
Botswana Lotsane 9 748 62 62 6.4
South Africa Mogalakwena 20 248 269 79 3.9
Botswana* Motloutse 1 953 111 111 5.8
 Total for upper reach   139 103 1 620 796 5.7
Botswana Shashe 12 070 250 250 20.7
Botswana Other 7 905      
Zimbabwe** Shashe 18 991 462 462 24.3
Zimbabwe** Umzingwane 15 695 350 350 22.3
South Africa Sand 15 630 72 38 2.4
South Africa Nzhelele 3 436 113 89 26
Zimbabwe** Bubi 8 140 53 53 6.5
 Total for middle reach   81 867 1 300 1242 15.2
South Africa Luvuvhu 4 826 520 492 102
Zimbabwe** Mwenezi 14 759 256 256 17.4
Zimbabwe** Other 4 956 36 36 7.3
South Africa Elephants 68 450 1 644 1233 18
South Africa Other 13 996 2 352    
Mozambique Changane 43 000      
Mozambique Elephants 1 550      
Mozambique Other (e.g. Lumane) 40 431 315    
 Total for lower reach   151 537 5 123 2017 21.7
 Total   412 938 8 043 4055 9.8
* Denaturalised MAR will change when utilization of the Letsibogo Dam increases.
** According to Görgens and Boroto (1999), the MAR for Zimbabwe is the denaturalised MAR; according to GOZ–MRRWD–DWD (1984), the given MAR is the naturalized MAR. Sources: Görgens and Boroto (1999); GOSA–DWAF (1991); GOSA–DWAF (2003 a–d); GOB–MMRWA (1992); GOZ–MRRWD–DWD (1984); FAO (1997)

Source: FAO 2004

Estimated run-off per sub-basin is displayed in the map below (left).


Like several other river basins in southern Africa, no natural, perennial lakes exist within the Limpopo River basin.


There are numerous dams of various sizes distributed around the Limpopo River basin, with a variety of purposes. The map below (left) shows the location of these dams.

While there are some proposals related to hydroelectic power generation, all of the dams located within the Limpopo River basin are utilised for water storage for domestic, agricultural and industrial (mining) use.  The distribution of dams across the Limpopo River basin is illustrated in the map below (right).

Estimated natural Mean Annual Run-off (MAR) mm/yr.
Source: LBPTC 2010
( click to enlarge )
Distribution of dams in the Limpopo River basin.
Source: FAO (Date?); DWA 2010.
( click to enlarge )

Pans and Vleis

A pan is a depression in which water collects when the soil layer is saturated, usually following heavy rainfall.  Pans form where the water table is close to the surface, with water usually dissipating through evaporation, rather than outflow to a stream or river, but this is not excluded.

Vleis - types of marshes or wetlands - are usually more permanent features in areas where the water table is consistently or more frequently close to the surface.  The distribution of wetlands in the Limpopo River basin is discussed in more detail in the Wetland section of the Ecology and Biodiversity Chapter.

Surface Water Monitoring

Each country of the Limpopo River basin has its own surface water monitoring infrastructure and procedures, which vary to some degree in extent, time frame, but follow similar methods (LBPTC 2010).  However, a SADC-wide monitoring programme of automated flow-gauging stations, known as SADC HYCOS (Hydrological Cycle Observation System) has been put in place to facilitate regional hydrological information gathering and sharing. 

National surface water monitoring and SADC HYCOS are discussed in more detail in the Existing Monitoring section of the Resource Monitoring Chapter of Resource Management.



Explore the sub-basins of the Limpopo River

Explore the interactions of living organisms in aquatic environments

Examine how the hydrologic cycle moves water through and around the earth

Tour video scenes along the Limpopo related to The River Basin Theme