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People and the River



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The large but still sparsely populated country is one of the fastest urbanising countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and has undergone a rapid change from a predominantly rural population towards a significant degree of urbanisation (SWECO Groner 2005). The country’s long civil war from 1975 to 2002 has encouraged this trend, with accelerated migration due to substantial displacement from rural to urban areas, as rural people sought greater security in urban centres (UNDP 2005). This phenomenon contributed to the increase of poverty and deterioration of the quality of life in both urban and rural areas.

Rural school construction.
Source: Tump 2008
( click to enlarge )

Accelerated Urbanisation and Deterioration of Quality of Life in Urban Centres

The civil war focussed particularly on the rural population and on the destruction of infrastructure (schools, hospitals, water supply systems, factories, agricultural infrastructure, etc.). The exodus of the rural population was directed towards the urban centres, particularly to the coastal cities of Luanda, Lobito, Namibe and Benguela, but also to the provincial capitals of the interior (MUA 2006). Luanda, the national capital, has grown from a population of 1.6 million in 1990 to around 3.6 million in 2002. In 2005 the urban population of Angola was finally estimated at 7.4 million, representing 57 % of the total population (WB 2005). Estimates for Luanda’s population in 2010 vary between 3.5 and 4.8 million inhabitants. No national census has been conducted since independence to confirm the accuracy of these estimates. 

The increased security offered by many urban centres during the war made that the population of Lubango, the second largest city in the Kunene River basin, increased significantly (LNEC 2001). It is estimated that it was 40 or 50 times larger in 2000 than in 1940 (UNDP 2005). However there are other cities which were directly attacked during the conflict and the population fled, as was the case in the basin’s largest city Huambo.


The rapid and unregulated urbanisation worsened urban poverty and living conditions, leading to (UNDP 2005, MUA 2006):

  • Extremely overloaded infrastructure and basic services such as water supply, sanitation, solid waste disposal, and transportation systems;
  • An increase in the informal sector and un(der)employment in the labour market; and
  • An uncontrolled proliferation of slums and informal settlements in peri-urban areas (musseques), and an anarchic development of buildings in open spaces within consolidated urban areas.

Although the civil war ended in 2002, the urban centres in Angola have continued to grow due to a high urban demographic growth rate and prolonged rural-urban migration. The population of Huambo in the Upper Kunene is experiencing a particular growth, due to its growing economy and the reconstruction of industrial areas destroyed during civil war.

Health and Education in Urban and Rural Areas

The health sector in Angola indicates serious weaknesses both in terms of infrastructure and human resources. The destruction of many hospitals and health centres during the war is one of the causes of this situation. Health centres are scarce and the number of professionals limited. Related services are concentrated in urban areas. About 70 % of the doctors are based in Luanda, while rural settlements in the Kunene River basin and other rural regions completely lack medical services (MUA 2006).

Education indicators in Angola are among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. Luanda and other urban areas are better served than the rural areas, which characterise most of the Kunene River basin. The proportion of individuals who never attended school is higher in rural areas (42 %) than in urban centres (24 %). The metropolitan region of Luanda is high above the national average with 78 % of children achieving the seventh grade. For other urban and rural areas the numbers stand at 65 % and 64 % respectively (MUA 2006).

The educational infrastructure and standards in the predominantly rural Kunene and Namibe Province are generally poor. As a consequence, many children never attend school at all or only a very late stage. In Kunene Province, just 25 % of children of school going age are attending school, in Namibe Province 44 % (ERM 2009).

Water storage in Namacunde village, Kunene basin.
Source: Tump 2006
( click to enlarge )
Rural school, Kunene basin.
Source: Tump 2007
( click to enlarge )

Rural Poverty

In rural areas, living standards are still far below those found in urban centres. The situation became even more complex as millions of displaced people returned to their home provinces following the war (WB 2005).

There had been a continuous impoverishment of the rural population during the civil war. In 2000, approximately 78 % of rural households were poor, and 70 % were classified as extremely poor. Living conditions deteriorated substantially with continued disincentives for family farming due to the following factors (UNDP 2005):

  • Explosive exodus of the rural population;
  • Intensified isolation of rural areas from the rest of the country (exacerbated by insecurity and destruction of bridges and roads); and
  • Limited access to arable land due to scattered landmines and destroyed infrastructure.

Prerequisites for the Revitalisation of Rural Areas

The revitalisation of rural areas faces enormous challenges:

  • The development of basic infrastructure, such as improved road networks, water and energy supply, will contribute to the revitalisation of the rural economy. This, in turn, will encourage people stay or return to rural areas;
  • The development of schools and hospitals is essential for improving the living conditions and developing human capital in rural areas.
  • Secure land tenure as well as financial services are further prerequisites which play an important role in the revitalisation of rural areas.




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