Zambia doesn’t hold 60% of southern Africa’s freshwater, but 4.5%

Comments 8

The claim that Zambia has 60% of the Southern African Development Community’s freshwater is completely false.

If Zambia has 60% of the freshwater in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), why does it import fish from China?

Investment consultant, Fisho Mwale, reportedly referred to this state of affairs when he made a presentation at a national enterprise conference in Lusaka last week.

The claim that the landlocked country is home to 60% of the community’s water has appeared before in a 2012 tweet, a press release by the Southern Africa Zambia chamber of commerce and is also on the agenda for a conference about commercial farming in Africa to be held in October.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a similar claim in 2012 by stating that “Zambia’s water courses account for about 60% of water resources in the SADC region”.

Zambia is one of 15 member countries in the SADC. Two big tributaries of the Zambezi river flow through Zambia, it contains lake Bangweulu and shares lake Mweru and the southern end of lake Tanganyika. Could it possess 60% of southern Africa’s freshwater, or water courses?

“Sounds like a job for @AfricaCheck,” Matt Hill tweeted and we got to work.

Where does the 60% figure come from?

When Africa Check phoned Mwale, he said he was misquoted and that he said instead that Zambia has 40% to 50% of the SADC’s freshwater. When asked on what he based it, Mwale sent Africa Check a paper in the International Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Studies, but it did not contain data on Zambia’s freshwater resources.

An economist at the OECD, Carole Biau, told Africa Check that their statement related to the water courses flowing through Zambia, and not the country itself.

“[These] watercourses, in their entirety and spanning several other countries, carry about 60% of SADC water resources,” she said. “The implication was really that regional collaboration on these resources is essential for Zambia, precisely because they are shared across so much of SADC.”

Biau admitted that the wording of the statement “may have led to confusion.” Africa Check is in the process of verifying the OECD’s claim and will update this report once we’ve done so.

How do scientists calculate freshwater levels at national scale?

The 15 member countries of the Southern African Development Community.Calculating the quantity of freshwater a country holds relies on long-term annual averages, an associate professor in water resources engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, John Ndiritu, told Africa Check. It is therefore not “a perfect indicator of the reality” of how much freshwater there is.

Freshwater includes rainfall, groundwater and “streamflow”, which is surface water in lakes, rivers and streams and that is measured by dedicated monitoring stations.

Determining the levels of groundwater relies on indirect measurement, professor of water engineering at Wits, Akpofure Taigbenu, told Africa Check. This is done by drilling into an aquifer and determining the water pressure.

“A small [pressure] value, with a large discharge [amount of water displaced], means that there is a large amount of water in the aquifer,” Taigbenu said.

Data on rainfall, groundwater and streamflow is expressed in billion cubic meters per year and summed to arrive at a freshwater total.

This data excludes the volume of water contained in dams, such as Kariba, Africa’s largest dam at a volume of 188 billion m³ and which Zambia shares with Zimbabwe. “[Dams] are an essential part of managing water and dealing with droughts, but the water still comes from [rainfall],” Ndiritu said.

How much freshwater lies in Zambia?

Africa Check consulted a database called AQUASTAT that is kept by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The organisation relies on countries to supply data and noted that “the best quality data are frequently not satisfactory”. Part of it is due to incomplete measurement. “South Africa has quite a lot of streamflow stations but other countries [in SADC] don’t have the same resources,” Ndiritu said.

Keeping these possible limitations in mind, the database showed that Zambia has 104.8 billion m³ of “renewable freshwater resources”. This is less than a twelfth of the DRC’s 1,283 billion m³ recorded and puts Zambia fifth in the SADC region, after Madagascar (337 billion m³), Mozambique (217.1 billion m³) and Angola (148.4 billion m³).

Calculated as a share of the SADC’s freshwater resources, Zambia holds 4.5% and the DRC more than half. (Click here to see the share of all the SADC member countries.)

Country Total freshwater
(billion m³
% of SADC
Democratic Republic of the Congo 1,283 54.9%
Madagascar 337 14.4%
Mozambique 217.1 9.3%
Angola 148.4 6.4%
Zambia 104.8 4.5%

Conclusion: Zambia has about 5% of the SADC’s freshwater

The claim that Zambia has 60%, or even 40% to 50%, of the SADC’s freshwater does not hold against the best available data. A database kept by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization puts its share at 4.5%.

The DRC is the outright leader in the SADC, containing more than half of the total freshwater volume in the community.

© Copyright Africa Check 2020. Read our republishing guidelines. You may reproduce this piece or content from it for the purpose of reporting and/or discussing news and current events. This is subject to: Crediting Africa Check in the byline, keeping all hyperlinks to the sources used and adding this sentence at the end of your publication: “This report was written by Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organisation. View the original piece on their website", with a link back to this page.

Comment on this report

Comments 8
  1. By Craig

    I have heard the figure mentioned before but perhaps more accurately that 60% of freshwater originates in Zambia. This may be closer to the truth considering the flows of the Luaupula river into the Congo river and the Zambezi system is sourced entirely in zambia. Not sure on the accuracy of this statement but probably closer to the truth and perhpas the source of the continuous misquote of figures.

    Reply Report comment
    • By Andrew Bungoni

      The analysis took the entire luapula lake as that of being in Katanga Congo when in fact its shared 50/50 with zambia. The report also deliberately excluded the water stored in the Kariba Dam which souly come from the Zambezi which spring starts from zambia and develops into the mighty Zambezi while still in zambia. The other point that was omitted in the report was the fact that the amount of water found below 200 meters in zambia is far more per cubic meter than any other hence Konkola deep being the wettest mine in the world calculating the amount of water pumped out per minute. So if you total all the fresh water srings, lakes and large rivers zambia is number 1 in SADEC following the Chinese government report of 2004.

      Reply Report comment
  2. By Abel M. Siampale, Geomatic Engineer

    I am not sure about the quantities (volume) of freshwater contained in Zambia’s streams, rivers, dams and lakes, but what I am 95% sure of, is the total surface area covered by water which is geo-calculated using high resolution earth observation products of 30 cm spatial resolution. Based on this data source “UNCCD 2018 Country Profile Report” Zambia’s accounts for a total surface area of water to be approximately 1.4 million hectares; while wetlands has approximately 3.6 million hectares; grasslands cover 16.4 million hectares; forests has 45.9 million hectares; cropland has 7.2 million hectares; artificial surfaces (human settlements) cover approximately 0.5 million hectares; and other land parcels is about 0.26 million hectares.

    You may also wish to cross check with the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, particularly the Forestry Department and the National Remote Sensing Centre on the latest (2015) land cover map estimates for these figures. In a similar manner it is absolutely possible with very high reliability to employ remote sensing to accurately quantify the volume of water that Zambia may have. There are spectral bands for “active sensor” (satellites that can collect earth observations even in the night and through any cloud cover densities) that can detect with high precision the depth of our water in our reservoirs and thereby account for this natural capital asset (NCA) better.

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Obed Chanda

    This needs to be clarified ASAP. I came across this blog because I am looking for citation articles on the “40% surface AND underground water” being in Zambia. I have never heard of 60% before…

    We need verifiable information in Africa.

    Reply Report comment
  4. By Abel Muzumi SIAMPALE, Forestry Specialist and Geomatic Engineer

    I absolutely agree with you Obed on verifiable sources of information.

    Currently, a colleague of mine and his team of water experts are currently working on the NCA for Water Accounts under the wealth accounting and ecosystem services (WAVES). They are likely to get to a point where they may tackle the water stock accounts (during their second NCA iteration on water) to derive verifiable estimates on how much surface and or fresh water we may have in Zambia. Only then should we be getting closer to understanding and verifying the reported water resource quantity managed internally (within Zambia).

    I can wait for the WAVES activities going forward.

    Reply Report comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Africa Check encourages frank, open, inclusive discussion of the topics raised on the website. To ensure the discussion meets these aims we have established some simple House Rules for contributions. Any contributions that violate the rules may be removed by the moderator.

Contributions must:

  • Relate to the topic of the report or post
  • Be written mainly in English

Contributions may not:

  • Contain defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or harassing language or material;
  • Encourage or constitute conduct which is unlawful;
  • Contain material in respect of which another party holds the rights, where such rights have not be cleared by you;
  • Contain personal information about you or others that might put anyone at risk;
  • Contain unsuitable URLs;
  • Constitute junk mail or unauthorised advertising;
  • Be submitted repeatedly as comments on the same report or post;

By making any contribution you agree that, in addition to these House Rules, you shall be bound by Africa Check's Terms and Conditions of use which can be accessed on the website.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.