Zambezi River | Roll Back Malaria Expedition | Disease Without Borders | Success Story | David Livingstone | Country Profiles

A gigantic river

The Zambezi, Africa's fourth-longest river, is the largest flowing into the Indian Ocean. From its source on the Central African Plateau, in the triangle formed by Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola nearly 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) above sea level, it makes a journey of about 2,500 kilometres (1,600 miles) before splitting into a huge delta and finally reaching the ocean. It descends from central to southeast Africa, flowing through Zambia, Angola and Mozambique. In many stretches, the river is the natural border to neighbouring countries such as Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

The Zambezi is only commercially navigable for 650 kilometres (400 miles) from its mouth to below the Cahora Bassa dam. Fishing, farming and tourism are the main sources of income for the people living along its banks. The river provides water for drinking and irrigation, fish, and hydroelectric power through the dams at Kariba and Cahora Bassa. Wildlife is abundant in (crocodiles, hippos) and along the river (lions, leopards, elephants and buffaloes). The region includes several national parks and Victoria Falls, the largest sheet of falling water in the world. Yet both development and tourism are being held hostage to malaria, a disease that kills over one million people a year, most of them in Africa.

> Back to top

The Roll Back Malaria Zambezi Expedition

After two years of preparation, Expedition Organizers Helge Bendl and Andy Leemann partnered with the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, six countries from the Southern African Development Community, non-profit institutions and private companies to put a spotlight on the plight of malaria-stricken communities in Africa, suffering 90 percent of the global annual death toll. On 29th March 2008, the Roll Back Malaria Zambezi Expedition launched into a two months voyage to showcase successes and highlight challenges associated with the fight against one of the globe's leading infectious killers.

Starting at the source of the river and finishing in its delta, medical teams travelled more than 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) in inflatable boats through Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. By exposing the difficulties of delivering mosquito nets and medications to remote areas, the Zambezi Expedition has demonstrated that only a coordinated cross-border action can force the disease to recoil and turn the lifeline of southern Africa into a "River of Life" for those threatened by malaria.

> Back to top

Disease without borders

Countries in the Trans-Zambezi region have successfully implemented and are continuing to strengthen their malaria control programs. Yet for communities cut off from effective malaria protection and treatment by geographical barriers, conflict, or lack of infrastructure and resources, life remains difficult and precarious. Indeed, illness from this preventable and treatable disease causes loss of income and productivity on a scale large enough to slow a country's economic growth by as much as 1.3% per year. Footage captured during the Zambezi Expedition will illustrate the complex challenges and daunting obstacles that malaria control workers are facing daily. It will show how cross-border movement, lack of health facilities, an overburdened health workforce and missing infrastructure obstruct and delay the delivery of malaria prevention and treatment to those who need them most. Traveling down river through six countries, the Zambezi Expedition will help to voice each country's unique story of struggle and success while rallying government and public support for a common Zambezi-wide malaria control strategy that is currently in the making.

The crew's provisions and resources are small compared to the enormity of the problem they are meant to alleviate. No single crew, however well-meaning, and no single government, however committed, could win alone the fight against this resilient disease. By exposing the successes and challenges facing each of the six countries' national malaria control programs, whether in promoting prevention or in delivering treatment tools, the Zambezi Expedition will demonstrate the need for coordinated cross-border action to force malaria to recoil. Five countries in the region (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) are currently developing a joint action plan and a proposal for an increased coverage of populations at risk. If successful, the proposal will receive financial assistance from the Global Fund, the world's largest financier of malaria control programs, and help relieve the heavy burden of malaria in the Trans-Zambezi region.

> Back to top

Success is possible

To raise public and donor support for future cross-country initiatives, the Zambezi Expedition will narrate stories of triumph of the kind that come to life when political commitment is backed by expertise and funding. One such cross-border project, covering parts of Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland decreased malaria cases in the Lubombo region by 82 percent in four years - a success that paints a brighter future for the new Zambezi-wide initiative.

> Back to top

In the footsteps of David Livingstone

David Livingstone was the first European to travel the entire region and particularly the Zambezi. Having studied theology and medicine, he initially came to Africa as a missionary. Soon he found that he was more interested in exploring than in missionary work. He believed the Zambezi to be the gateway to introduce "the Three Cs", Christianity, commerce and civilization, to the region. In the 1850s he surveyed large sections of the river. His Zambezi Expedition, funded by the British Government, lasted more than six years, from 1858 to 1864 when it was finally recalled. Livingstone and his people started working their way upriver from the delta on the Indian Ocean. They discovered that the Zambezi was non-navigable beyond the Cahora Bassa rapids and cataracts. The expedition was widely regarded as a failure. After the Zambezi expedition, Livingstone continued his travels and explorations in Africa for ten more years. He died in 1873, severely ill of malaria and dysentery. His main achievements were his geographical discoveries, but Livingstone also helped to bring health care, education, and trade to the region. Last but not least, his ideas prepared the ground for the abolishment of slavery.

Livingstone inspired the missionaries, explorers, merchants and adventurers who came after him - and he also inspired Expedition Leaders Helge Bendl and Andy Leemann who created the Zambezi Expedition project two years ago. The Zambezi Expedition of 2008 coped with some of the same difficulties Livingstone faced 150 years ago. Tropical diseases like the malaria that killed the explorer as well as his wife Mary still prevail. The threats to navigation (rapids, sand bars, flooding, wildlife) have remained the same, but the team had of course been much better prepared and equipped for the task. The Zambezi Expedition used rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) that are appropriate for shallow waters and extreme conditions - these dinghys can travel where others can't.

> Back to top

Countries in the Trans-Zambezi region

Zambia - A large proportion of the country's population is protected by nets and spraying measures. Coverage with artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) is the highest in Africa. Pregnant women have wide access to anti-malaria prevention. Delivering commodities and services to remote river communities, however, remains a major challenge.

Angola - Health care systems in Angola have suffered severe damages due to 27 years of civil war. As a result, 70% of the population has poor or no access to government health facilities and malaria commodities. Malaria accounts for 35% of mortality among children under the age of five.

Namibia and Botswana - Namibia and Botswana are almost malaria-free except for an area around the Zambezi river and border regions. Elimination of malaria in the two countries would greatly enhance tourism and economic development in the Zambezi corridor, which is famous for its agriculture and tourist attractions.

Zimbabwe - Ongoing economic difficulties are obstructing malaria control efforts in a country which had historically made much progress in the fight against the disease.

Mozambique - 99% of the population in Mozambique is at risk of contracting malaria. Regular flooding of the Zambezi compounds the malaria problem. There is a need to expand spraying, increase use of long lasting nets and improve coordination.

> Back to top