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People and the River



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Economic Activities in the Basin  

Economic activities in the Kunene River basin can be described along the course of the river, from upstream to downstream, as follows:


The Upper Kunene and the northern parts of the river's middle reaches are characterised by a sub-tropical highland climate with high and relatively regular rainfall. These conditions favour arable agriculture. Different crops are grown mainly under rainfed conditions, the most dominant being maize, beans, wheat, and potatoes. Livestock farming has also gained in relevance. (Monteiro et al., MUA 2006). Further downstream, the (semi-)arid south of the Middle Kunene is dominated by livestock and, to a lesser extent, crops such as maize, manioc, sorghum (massambala), millet (massango) and cowpea (feijão macunde). In the south-western lower reaches, arable agriculture is limited due to low and erratic rainfall. Extensive subsistence pastoralism is predominant while arable agriculture represents a supplement to household diets in the wet season (Tapscott 1995/96, ERM 2009).

Rainfed agriculture in the Upper Kunene basin.
Source: AHT GROUP AG 2009
( click to enlarge )

Irrigated Agriculture

While agriculture is still mainly rainfed, irrigation is being promoted, particularly in the Angolan basin part. The Government of Angola has launched a programme for the country’s main river basins and floodplains which foresees the rehabilitation of existent irrigation systems, for the most part destroyed or neglected during civil war, and the installation of new systems. These systems are intended to promote agriculture and livestock production among family, smallholder and commercial farmers. Recent estimates suggest that the irrigated area in the Kunene basin is around 42 000 ha (representing 12.3 % of total irrigated area in Angola) consuming around 0.4 km³ of water per year (SWECO Grøner 2005). A further 780 000 ha are planned for rehabilitation, to be completed by 2025. Current plans for the expansion of irrigation using water from the Kunene River basin foresee a total irrigated area of over 600 000 ha by 2025, mainly for the Middle Kunene, where around 595 000 ha are planned. This would mean a dramatic increase in water demand compared with annual average discharges further downstream.

In the Namibian part of the Kunene basin, irrigation occurs mainly within the Etunda irrigation scheme near Ruacana, just outside the basin. Furthermore, some small scale irrigation can be found along the channel between Calueque and Oshikango.

For more information about irrigation, click on Irrigation Infrastructure and Irrigated Crops.

Generation of Hydroelectric Power

The generation of hydroelectric power in the basin is a major “water user” (although water resources are not consumed in the generation of electricity) and has great economic importance. The sections Upstream & Downstream and Dams & Infrastructure present the different dams with their associated hydroelectric power plants.


Angola possesses forestry resources almost unique within southern Africa, both in quantitative as well as qualitative terms. The Angolan central plateau, which also comprises the upper reaches of the Kunene basin, is the principal nucleus of the Angolan forestry sector producing wood, for example from exotic species grown in plantations (such as eucalyptus and pines) (MUA 2006).


Until the 1970s, iron was a major export product of Angola. A number of iron mines were located in Huambo and Huíla Provinces within the Kunene River basin. The last mine in exploitation was at Cassinga in Huíla, which ceased extraction during the civil war although plans exist to reopen it in the future. Besides iron, the Angolan Kunene basin provinces are rich in quartz, marble, granite, and other minerals (MUA 2006). However, mining was disrupted by the civil war and only some mines have resumed operation.

Mining activities in the Namibian part of the Kunene basin remain limited due to the lack of knowledge of major mineral resources. However, a number of “deposits” and “traces” (titanium, nickel, lead-zinc, copper, and zirconium) have been revealed, which may be interesting for small scale operations. At present, small-scale mining of garnet is practiced in two mines in the Otjindjangi River area (Marienfluss), and blue sodalite in a mine at Swartbooisdrift on the banks of the Kunene River (Möllers 1999, Tapscott 1995/96, ERM 2009).

Manufacturing & Commerce

The high population density of the Angolan central plateau in the Upper Kunene basin has created a tight trading network based upon manufacturing industries for agriculture and consumer goods. The city of Huambo, located in the far upper reaches, is the manufacturing centre in the basin. The sector had been dramatically diminished during civil war and is now being revitalised. Two other industrial zones are being promoted in the Upper Kunene reaches:

  • Industrial Pole of Caálà (Huambo Province); and
  • Industrial Pole of Matala (Huíla Province).

In the lower middle and lower basin no significant industries exist and the commercial sector is weak. The majority of the limited and expensive commercial goods sold in Kunene and rural Namibe Province are brought in from Namibia. Most households rely on the informal sector for the purchase of goods and services. In the Namibian “Northern Kunene” there exists a small commercial sector, oriented to the retail trade. Opuwo (just outside the watersheds of the Kunene basin) has some businesses and even banking facilities. However, in the settlements inside the basin there are still many constraints to the expansion of the commercial sector (ERM 2009).

Meeting the Himba.
Source: © Ostby 2007
( click to enlarge )
Wildlife attraction - oryx at sunset.
Source: © Ostby 2007
( click to enlarge )


In recent years there has been an upsurge in small scale tourism in the Lower Kunene despite problems of access and infrastructure. The area is favoured for its "wilderness" and "conservation value" boasting both rare and common wildlife species.

The Namibian Kaokoveld is considered a high priority conservation area (IUCN) and the Ojtindjangi River (Marienfluss) is a potential world heritage site. Further attractions are the Himba culture, the natural sites of Hartmann's Valley, Epupa Falls and Ruacana Falls, the Kunene River mouth within the Skeleton Coast National Park, as well as several wildlife conservancies (for more details see Ecotourism). Some tour operators are active in the area and have begun involving local communities in a small scale.

On the Angolan side of the Kunene, approximately two-thirds of the land adjacent to the river is designated as part of the Iona National Park. Although there exists some tourist potential, hotel and lodge facilities are poor, while the absence of tour operators and poor roads still restricts access to tourist attractions (Möllers 1999, ERM 2009).




Explore the sub-basins of the Kunene River

Video Interviews about the integrated and transboundary management of the Kunene River basin

View a historical timeline of the Kunene basin countries, including water agreements & infrastructure

Video scenes about the limited access to water of the San in Kunene Province