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South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

Lakes and Rivers

Water shortages are a chronic and severe problem in much of South Africa. The country has no commercially navigable rivers and no significant natural lakes. Along the coastline are several large lagoons and estuarine lakes, such as Lake Saint Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal. The government has created several artificial lakes, primarily for agricultural irrigation.

South Africa's largest river, the Orange River, rises in the Drakensberg Mountains and flows to the west and northwest, draining the highlands of Lesotho before being joined by the Caledon River between the Eastern Cape province and the Free State. The Orange River forms the border with Namibia before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.

The major tributary of the Orange River, the Vaal ("foul"--for its murky cast) River, rises in the Drakensbergs and flows westward, joining the Orange River from the north in Northern Cape province. Together, the Orange and the Vaal rivers drain almost two-thirds of the interior plateau of South Africa. Other major rivers are the Breede River, the Komati River, the Olifants River, the Tugela River, and the Umzimvubu River, which run fairly short distances from the interior plateau to the ocean, and the Limpopo and Molopo rivers along the northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Climate and Rainfall

Climatic conditions generally range from Mediterranean in the southwestern corner of the country to temperate in the interior plateau, and subtropical in the northeast. A small area in the northwest has a desert climate. Most of the country has warm, sunny days and cool nights. Rainfall generally occurs during summer (November through March), although in the southwest, around the Cape of Good Hope, rainfall often occurs in winter (June through August). Temperatures are influenced by variations in elevation, terrain, and ocean currents more than latitude.

Temperature and rainfall patterns vary in response to the movement of a high-pressure belt that circles the globe between 25° and 30° south latitude during the winter and low-pressure systems that occur during summer. There is very little difference in average temperatures from south to north, however, in part because the inland plateau rises slightly in the northeast. For example, the average annual temperature in Cape Town is 17°C, and in Pretoria, 17.5°C, although these cities are separated by almost ten degrees of latitude. Maximum temperatures often exceed 32°C in the summer, and reach 38°C in some areas of the far north. The country's highest recorded temperatures, close to 48°C, have occurred in both the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga (formerly Eastern Transvaal).

Frost occurs in high altitudes during the winter months. The coldest temperatures have been recorded about 250 kilometers northeast of Cape Town, where the average annual minimum temperature is -6.1°C. Record snowfalls (almost fifty centimeters) occurred in July 1994 in mountainous areas bordering Lesotho.

Climatic conditions vary noticeably between east and west, largely in response to the warm Agulhas ocean current, which sweeps southward along the Indian Ocean coastline in the east for several months of the year, and the cold Benguela current, which sweeps northward along the Atlantic Ocean coastline in the west. Air temperatures in Durban, on the Indian Ocean, average nearly 6°C warmer than temperatures at the same latitude on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The effects of these two currents can be seen even at the narrow peninsula of the Cape of Good Hope, where water temperatures average 4°C higher on the east side than on the west.

Rainfall varies considerably from west to east. In the northwest, annual rainfall often remains below 200 millimeters. Much of the eastern Highveld, in contrast, receives 500 millimeters to 900 millimeters of rainfall per year; occasionally, rainfall there exceeds 2,000 millimeters. A large area of the center of the country receives about 400 millimeters of rain, on average, and there are wide variations closer to the coast. The 400-millimeter "rainfall line" has been significant because land east of the rainfall line is generally suitable for growing crops, and land west of the rainfall line, only for livestock grazing or crop cultivation on irrigated land (see fig. 2).

Data as of May 1996

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