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Socioeconomics: Upstream vs Downstream

Comprising 27 sub-basins, the Limpopo River flows north from South Africa, where it creates the border between South Africa and Botswana and then the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, before crossing into Mozambique and eventually draining into the Indian Ocean.

In the Limpopo River basin, agriculture is a dominant economic activity and irrigation is the largest Water User overall. South Africa uses the most water of any country because of its large population (see table below), and correspondingly high irrigation and mining sector water requirements. Zimbabwe's demands are about half those of South Africa but the allocation is similarly dominated by urban supply and irrigation.  Mozambique and Botswana use the least water. Mozambique's demands are largely dominated by irrigation and Botswana's demands are largely dominated by urban and rural water supply (LBPTC 2010). 

Population statistics for the four riparian countries of the Limpopo River basin from upstream to downstream.

Country Country population in 2007 Basin population 2007
% of population
Density (people/km²)
Botswana 1 756 651 1 205 580 69 15
South Africa 47 900 000 10 720 838 22 134
Zimbabwe 11 392 629 1 140 833 10 8
Mozambique 20 366 795 1 389 703 7 18
Source: LBPTC 2010
The Lower Limpopo River at Chokwé, Mozambique.
Source: Qwist-Hoffmann 2010
( click to enlarge )

As in many basins around the world there are socio-economic differences along the river from its source to its mouth. The upstream countries of Botswana and South Africa are listed as Medium Human Development countries, according to the 2007 Human Development Index values (HDI), and the downstream country of Mozambique is ranked as being a Low Human Development country (UNDP HDR 2009). There is insufficient data to provide a raking for Zimbabwe. Since the HDI was first measured in 1980 there has been an improvement in ranking in Botswana (0,94 % annually), Mozambique (1,34 % annually) and South Africa (0,14 % annually). Other human development indicators such as GDP and life expectancy are higher in the upstream riparian countries than the downstream countries, and literacy is high (above 82 %) in all countries except for Mozambique (44,4 %).

Water Quality

Another area of discussion in relation to upstream and downstream countries is water quality. The cumulative impact of agriculture and industries located along the river from upstream to downstream can result in higher concentrations of pollutants downstream. On the same note, the inflow of tributaries from upstream to downstream dilutes pollutants, sometimes causing water to be of higher quality downstream (depending on the water quality of the tributary). The impact of upstream activities on downstream water quality have yet to be studied at a basin-scale.

Visit the Water Quality page for a more indepth discussion of water quality issues.