African wetlands

Africa’s wetland ecosystems are estimated to cover more than 131 million hectares. They deliver a wide range of ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being such as nutrition, water supply and purification, climate and flood regulation, coastal protection, feeding and nesting sites, recreational opportunities and increasingly, tourism.

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are land areas that are completely, partly or temporarily inundated, such as floodplains, swamps and marshes, peatlands, lakes, mangroves, and river deltas. According to the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands, the inundation of a wetland is a maximum of six meters (see right).


Wetlands exist in every country and in every climatic zone, from the polar regions to the tropics. They are distributed around the world and cover an area that is 33% larger than the USA. Africa has 131 million ha of wetlands, varying in type from saline coastal lagoons in West Africa to fresh and brackish water lakes in East Africa. Wetlands are found in most African countries (see box). For a description of all wetland sites in Africa, go to A Directory of African Wetlands by R.H. Hughes et al.


African wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the continent. They are home to over 2,000 known species of indigenous freshwater fish live in African wetlands. For example, the Zaire River Basin, probably the most diverse area in Africa for its fishes, has over 700 identified species of which 560 are endemic to the basin (Hails, 1996). African wetlands are also home to aquatic mammals, such as dolphins and manatees, as well as terrestrial mammals such as monkeys that live mangrove forests. They provide habitats for mollusks and a wide variety of insects, reptiles such as crocodiles, and amphibians. Read more


Africa is an arid continent with the lowest river flow per unit area of any continental landmass. Most African countries outside of the rainforest zone receive little rain for most of the year. Wetlands, with their abundant supply of fresh water, generally fertile soils, and high productivity, therefore play a central role in the economy of all river basins and coastal zones. They provide fish, water for agriculture, household uses and transport.

Additionally, many distant communities as well as entire cities and regions benefit from wetlands. High mountain peatlands and paramos store the excessive runoff water from the mountains and glaciers thereby prevent flooding of lower lying areas, all across the river basin. Coastal wetlands such as mangroves absorb wind and swell waves, storm surges and tsunamis and withstand some degree of sea level rise. Thereby they protect extensive inland areas from flooding and salt water intrusion. According to an estimation by IWMI, the total value of wetland services in Africa amounts to US$5.5billion.


Despite their importance, human activities and the changing climate are degrading wetlands faster than any other ecosystem. Few African governments have specific national policy, and are influenced by policies from different sectors, such as agriculture, national resources and energy.

Increasing population in conjunction with efforts to increase food security is escalating pressure to expand agriculture within wetlands. Wetlands are actually considered by some as the ‘new frontier’ in agriculture. Many floodplains and tidal wetlands have been reduced in size and their productivity declined. IWMI indicates that 66% of all listed African wetland are used for agriculture, and this wetland agriculture is valued at US$1.1 billion. For example, agricultural development has reduced the Mfolozi swamp in South Africa to 43% of its original size.

Another threat to wetlands is natural resource extraction. Industrial and urban water demand use of water For example, mining threatened the Wakkerstroom swamp in South Africa, and oil spillage, gas flaring, uncontrolled exploitation of forest resources, over-fishing and poorly planned and managed (oil) infrastructure development are heavily impacting the Niger Delta in Nigeria.

Additionally, climate changed related events, such as unpredictable and decreasing rainfall, are expected to reduce the water stored in wetlands and exacerbate their overexploitation and fuel further conversion into agricultural lands. Thereby also the other important services that wetlands deliver are lost.

What we do

Wetlands International Africa works with communities, national governments and multilateral institutions such as river basin authorities to promote sustainable development that includes the improved management of wetland ecosystems. Read more

Ramsar Site Info Service

The Ramsar Sites Information Service (RSIS) provides access to information on wetlands designated as internationally important under the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, 1971). These wetlands are commonly known as Ramsar Sites. Wetlands International delivers the RSIS for the Ramsar Convention, under a contractual arrangement with the Ramsar Secretariat. Read more


A Directory of African Wetlands

R.H. Hughes et al, 1992

What are wetlands?

According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands:

“Wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres."

Map of African wetlands


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Africa’s major wetlands

The largest wetlands on the African continent include the Okavango Delta, the Sudd in the Upper Nile, Lake Victoria basin and Lake Chad basin, and the floodplains and deltas of the Congo, Niger and Zambezi rivers (UNEP, 2000).

The greatest concentration of wetlands is roughly between 15ºN and 20ºS. Here one can find the wetlands of the four major African river ecosystems (Nile, Niger, Zaire, Zambezi); Lake Chad; the wetlands of the Inner Niger Delta in Mali; the Rift Valley Lakes (Victoria, Tanganyika, Malawi, Turkana, Mweru and Albert); the Sudd in Southern Sudan and Ethiopia; and the Okavango Delta in Botswana (Hails, 1996).

Furthermore, along the African coast, saline and brackish coastal and marine areas are situated, such as mangrove forests in Eastern Africa (stretching from Kisimayu in Somalia to Maputo in Mozambique), and along the West African coastline from Northern Angola to Tidra Island in Mauritania (Hails, 1996). Outside the 15ºN to 20ºS area, significant wetlands are inland oasis, wadis and chotts in North-West Africa, the Oualidia and Sidi Moussa lagoons in Morocco, the Limpopo river floodplain in Southern Africa, the Banc d’Arguin of Mauritania and the St. Lucia wetlands in South Africa (Hails, 1996).

Ramsar publication

An Overview of African Wetlands

By Tom Kabii, Ramsar Bureau, Switzerland