RHP South African
River Health Programme
State of the Rivers Report
Letaba & Luvuvhu
River Systems
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The Luvuvhu River Catchment

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luvuvhu catchment Luvuvhu Headwaters Dzindi and Luvuvhu Rivers Upstream and Downstream of their Confluence Upper Reaches of Mutshindudi and Mbwedi Rivers A Biodiversity Hotspot The Mutale River Tshiombedi River-Tributary of the Mutale River Sambandou River-Tributary of the Mutale River Luvuvhu River in the Kruger National Park


Luvuvhu Catment = 5 941 km2
Mean annual precipitation (MAP) = 608 mm
Mean annual evaporation = 1 678 mm
Mean annual runoff (MAR) = 519 million cubic metres (range from 85 to 1 900 million cubic metres)

The Luvuvhu Catchment forms part of the larger Limpopo system, which extends into Mozambique. The Luvuvhu River and some of its tributaries (including the Mutshindudi and Mutale rivers) rise in the Soutpansberg Mountains. The Luvuvhu River flows for about 200 km through a diverse range of landscapes before it joins the Limpopo River near Pafuri in the Kruger National Park.

Dams in the Luvuvhu River catchment include the Albasini Dam and the smaller Mambedi, Tshakhuma, Damani, Vondo, and Phiphidi Dams, of which the latter two lie in the Mutshindudi River. The Nandoni Dam is currently being constructed in the middle section of the Luvuvhu River east of the confluence with the Dzindi tributary and east of the town Thohoyandou.

The upper Luvuvhu, Sterkstroom, Latonyanda, Dzindi, Mukhase, Mbwedi and Mutshindudi are steep, narrow rivers dominated by cobble riffles and occasional pools with a few bedrock rapids. Large waterfalls in the upper Dzindi and Mutshindudi rivers create natural reach breaks and barriers to fish migration.

The lowveld reaches of the Luvuvhu and Mutshindudi rivers have diverse habitats where rapids, riffles, runs and pools occur. The river channel is incised into the landscape.

The Tshirovha and Tshiombedi tributaries to the Mutale River are steep with both bedrock and fixed boulder rapids. Habitats in the Mutale River are exceptionally diverse. Only two small weirs occur in the Mutale River.

Near the western Kruger National Park border, in the steep Lanner Gorge, the Mutale River joins the Luvuvhu River.

The Luvuvhu River and all its tributaries rising in the Soutpansberg are perennial.

    Luvuvhu Headwaters
The Luvuvhu River rises as a steep mountain stream in the southeasterly slopes of the Soutpansberg Mountains. Indigenous trees form closed canopies in some areas of the Sterkstroom and wetlands, such as the extensive reedbed downstream of the confluence with the Luvuvhu River, are found. The area around the Albasini Dam is a private conservancy. Riparian vegetation consists of dense stands of large trees, shrubs and reeds.

Land-use activities include forestry (11%) and agriculture (20%). Forestry plantations cover 44% of the upper reaches of the Luvuvhu and Latonyanda rivers, decreasing to less than 10% towards the Albasini Dam and confluence in ecoregion 5.04. Subsistence farming is about a third of the total agricultural component.

Luvuvhu River

Present Health:
SASS natural
FAII poor
RVI poor
Desired Health: good
Lu1 Shefeera

The riparian vegetation consists of dry acacia woodland species. Riparian vegetation in large areas has been removed to accommodate orchards. Alien vegetation such as eucalypts, poplars and Mauritius thorn invade the riparian zone.

Several introduced fish species such as black bass and common carp occur in the Albasini Dam.

Sterkstroom River

Present Health:
SASS natural
FAII poor
<RVI fair
Desired Health: fair
St1 Above Albasini

Smallholdings that are developed intensively for orchards occur along the river. A very narrow riparian strip is left because of orchards planted to the waters edge. Herbicide and insecticide spraying and fertiliser application have negative impacts on the water quality.

The Effects of Changes in Land-use on Floods

Forestry, poor agricultural practices, deforestation and urbanisation affect the rainwater run-off from the land. Man-induced changes to catchments increase the intensity and shorten the duration of floods. In areas where land-use practices are poor and where riparian vegetation is being removed, flood events accelerate bank and donga erosion.

Latonyanda River

Present Health:
SASS fair
FAII poor
RVI poor
Desired Health: good
Lat1 Botha's farm bridge Lat2 Cabbage Farm IFR site

Downstream, the vegetation becomes very dense - partly due to alien plant encroachment. Alien vegetation includes pine and eucalyptus plantations. Peanut butter cassia, mulberry and lantana are abundant.

Forestry practices in the upper reaches result in sedimentation and erosion of the highly erodable soils. Sawmills, numerous road bridges crossing the river and flood prevention structures cause high turbidity.

Photographs taken from the same road bridge across the Latonyanda River
before the 2000 floods and after (April 2001).

Luvuvhu River

Present Health:
SASS good
FAII fair
RVI fair
Desired Health: good
Lu2 Beja Bridge Lu3 Valdezia Weir

Irrigated lands and orchards, common towards the confluence of the Latonyanda and Luvuvhu rivers, reduce the riparian zone to a very narrow strip in some places.


Flow-dependent fish species suffer as a result of weirs, channels and abstraction. A red data species, the southern barred minnow, is no longer present, possibly due to the combination of flow reduction and the presence of many weirs.

Alien species that are abundant include lantana, bugweed, guava, castor-oil plant, syringa and eucalypts.

The Latonyanda River contributes a constant flow to the Luvuvhu River. This helps to compensate for the lack of releases from Albasini Dam.

Dzindi and Luvuvhu Rivers Upstream and downstream of their Confluence

The upper Dzindi River flows through a forestry area before it plunges down a large waterfall. Plantations cover about 35% and subsistence farming 26% of the upper Dzindi Catchment (ecoregion 2.01). The main land-use of the lower Dzindi River is subsistence farming, covering 45% of ecoregion 5.04.

The marginal riparian vegetation of this Luvuvhu reach is dominated by reeds. Pre-flood conditions included large beds and reed islands. The dominant land-use is subsistence farming.

Upper Dzindi River

Present Health:
SASS good
FAII poor
RVI poor
Desired Health: good

Dz1 Top Bridge Dz2 Forest track below waterfall

The local community farm on the steep slopes adjacent to the upper reaches of the Dzindi River. Some grazing occurs as well as cutting of trees in the riparian zone.

Natural Barriers Influence the Occurrence of Fish Species

Where natural barriers like waterfalls occur, the fish community above the barrier is often different to that below. While some species may never have occurred above the barrier, drought, fires, cold spells, toxic spills, alien predators and overfishing may eliminate species in the upstream reach. When species are lost through events like these, it is necessary to consider restocking programmes. Below the waterfall in the upper Dzindi River, the barred minnow (red data species) is found as well as the scarce line spotted barb. There are no records of these two species above the waterfall.

Dzindi River

Present Health:
SASS good
FAII fair
RVI poor
Desired Health: fair

Dz3 Bridge by Crocodile Ventures
The river is used for washing clothes. Sediment inflow is caused by forestry, agriculture and poorly planned rural settlements. In the lower section of the Dzindi River, a fish farm utilizes the sewage outflow from Thohoyandou sewage works. Water quality from this source remain a cause for concern.

The riparian vegetation is disturbed and removed by farming and grazing activities in and around the riparian zone. Terrestrial vegetation is encroaching into the riparian zone.

Luvuvhu River

Present Health:
SASS good
FAII fair
RVI poor
Desired Health: fair

Lu4 Roberts' farm packhouse Lu5 Gauging Weir A9h001 Lu6 Hasani Crossing Lu7 Nandoni IFR site

Alien vegetation such as lantana and castor- oil plants are common along the Luvuvhu River.

The riparian vegetation in the area of Thohoyandou has been largely destroyed for use as firewood and to provide grazing. This has led to increased donga erosion. Large, dense stands of trees occur at intervals.

Surveys throughout the Luvuvhu Catchment were made difficult because of the abundance of crocodiles.

Luvuvhu River

Present Health:
SASS fair
FAII fair
RVI poor
Desired Health: fair
Lu8 Beja Bridge

Community activities include fishing, bathing and washing of cars. Clay is removed from the riverbank for use in brick manufacturing. These pressures damage the channel banks and impact on the water quality.

Fish movement is blocked by the big weir below Malamulele pumphouse.

The construction of the Nandoni Dam impacts heavily on the section immediately down-stream. Access roads, in-stream coffer dams and diversions have damaged the riparian vegetation and river bank, while the in-stream habitat has been degraded through excessive siltation.

    Upper Reaches of Mutshindudi and Mbwedi Rivers
Subsistence farming is the dominant land-use in the upper reaches of the Mutshindudi and Mwedi rivers (up to 50%) with plantations covering some 17% of the total sub-catchment area.

Upper Mutshindudi River

Present Health:
SASS good
FAII fair
RVI good
Desired Health: good

Mut1 Phiphidi Forest Reserve and falls Mut2 Phiphidi hydro bridge (gorge)

Rural Practices along the Mutshindudi River

The underdeveloped rural regions of the Northern Province are subject to severe environmental degradation. Rural communities with a low per capita income are highly dependent on available natural resources, including riparian and aquatic resources, for survival. Limited environmental awareness and a lack of infrastructure and planning for sustainable utilisation worsen the situation.

Due to poor reticulation infrastructure, many people use water directly from streams for household purposes. The washing of laundry in rivers is a common activity. There are no other water sources available. No refuse removal system or functional recycling process exists.

Fish is an important protein source and a large proportion of the rural community eat freshwater fish. Methods of fishing include line and hook, gill nets, seine nets and traps. At this time, fishing effort is starting to show signs of overexploitation.

Rural Agricultural Practices

Agriculture (small scale subsistence and commercial crop production) is the main economic activity in the Mutshindudi River catchment. Traditional cattle farming, irrigated estates and schemes, rain-fed orchards and irrigated informal gardens are expanding. The land tenure system has resulted in the overstocking of cattle and goats with resultant high levels of erosion.

The riparian vegetation is over-utilised, mainly for firewood, fence construction, furniture, medicinal purposes and food. In many areas, the riparian vegetation has been completely replaced by crops and as a result, siltation of the river is increasing.

The resultant health of the riparian zone along the Mutshindudi River is deteriorating. Sediment inflows into the Mutshindudi are likely to increase, causing loss of in-stream habitats and eventual loss of fish and invertebrate species from the river.


The Vondo Dam supplies water to the surrounding tea estates as well as to the town of Thohoyandou.

Waterfalls occur in the steep upper reaches of the Mutshindudi River.


Phiphidi Forest Reserve is located just downstream of the Phiphidi Dam and adjacent to a forest plantation. The scenic Phiphidi Waterfall is located in this very small reserve. However, signs of littering at the adjacent picnic site are distressing.

Middle Mutshindudi River

Present Health:
SASS good
FAII fair
RVI fair
Desired Health: fair
Mut3 Tshivhulani

The Importance of the Riparian Zone and Why It should be Conserved

Riparian vegetation plays a very important role in protecting river ecosystems by:

  • Acting as a buffer to erosion through stabilisation of the river banks
  • Moderating the impacts of flooding on surrounding areas
  • Regulating water quality by acting as a buffer or filter, preventing nutrients, sediments and contaminants from entering the river.
  • Providing important habitat for many plant and animal species
  • Providing an ecological corridor, connecting habitats that would otherwise be isolated, for the movement and migration of terrestrial and avian species.
  • Riparian vegetation is vulnerable to invasion by alien plants.

    Indigenous vegetation stabilises river banks.

    Cultivated lands and orchards are common along the middle section of the Mutshindudi River, and often reduce the riparian vegetation to a narrow strip.

    Mbwedi River

    Present Health:
    SASS poor
    FAII poor
    RVI poor
    Desired Health: fair
    Mbw1 Damani Dam pump station

    The Damani Dam supplies water to the coffee estates. There is no mechanism for releasing water for the environment from the dam. Weirs and pump stations contribute to the unnatural flow in this section of the river.

      Biodiversity Hotspot

    The area surrounding the confluence of the Mutshindudi and the Luvuvhu River is regarded as a diversity hotspot for fish and invertebrates for the following reasons:

  • Healthy populations of the red data fish species, southern barred minnow and the provincially scarce line-spotted barb occur in the Mukhase River. When conditions permit, these species move into the Mbwedi, Mutshindudi and Luvuvhu Rivers.
  • Both warm and cool water species are present. The cool waters of the mountain streams mix with the warmer waters of the lowveld rivers in this area. Cool water species such as the common mountain catfish have been recorded down into the Kruger National Park, while warm water species such as the sawfin rock catlet migrate upstream from this warmer area.
  • The absence of dams in the lower catchment permits the free migration of species from the coastal zone to this point.
  • The biodiversity of this hotspot is under threat due to diminishing in-stream habitat. Impacts within the riparian zone are contributing towards erosion and deposition of sediments in the river.

    Mbwedi River

    Present Health:
    SASS good
    FAII fair
    RVI fair
    Desired Health: good
    Mbw2 Bridge above Mutshindudi confluence

    Dirt roads, bridge crossings and bridge construction lead to erosion and sediment in the river.

    Livestock trampling occurs causing sheet and donga erosion of riverbanks.

    Lower Mutshindudi River

    Present Health:
    SASS good
    FAII fair
    RVI fair
    Desired Health: good
    Mut4 School turn and waterfall Mut5 Malavuhe bridge Mut6 New gauging weir

    Local communities utilise the lower Mbwedi and lower Mutshindudi Rivers for bathing, swimming and washing cars and clothes.

    The gradient of the Mutshindudi River decreases towards the confluence with the Luvuvhu River.

    Mukhase River

    Present Health:
    SASS good
    FAII fair
    RVI good
    Desired Health: natural
    Muk1 Mphaphaula Cycad Reserve

    Local people collect water at the mountainous Mphaphuli Cycad Reserve gate, recognising the extremely good water quality of the perennial Mukhase River.

    A large new weir is under construction at Xikundu as part of the Nandoni Scheme. A fishway has been incorporated into the design of the weir, motivated by the high diversity of rare and sensitive species found in this area.
    Luvuvhu River

    Present Health:
    SASS natural
    FAII fair
    RVI poor
    Desired Health: fair
    Lu9 Tshifudi Bridge Lu10 Botsoleni Lu11 Mhinga broken pump station Lu12 Lambani Lu13 Dongodziva

    Reserve Determinations

    In the past, the location of dams and weirs for water extraction was dictated by geology, topography and economics. Recently, social and environmental issues have led to a more holistic and participatory approach to the placement of large water resource developments.

    Although the in-stream flow requirements have been determined for the lower main stem of the Luvuvhu River, the Letaba and Letsitele Rivers, an ecological reserve, as stipulated in the National Water Act of 1998, has not yet been set. All studies to date have been in response to the proposed developments of new dams.


    There is a high density of rural communities in this area. Activities that have negative impacts on the river include overgrazing, trampling, vegetation cutting, washing, sand mining and hand irrigated lands within the riparian zone.

      The Mutale River
    Lake Fundudzi lies in the upper Mutale River. Debris, caused by a landslide blocked the valley floor, creating the lake. The Mutale River re emerges as a spring from below the blockage.

    Subsistence farming is the dominant form of agriculture in the Mutale Catchment. Almost all the agricultural activities in ecoregion 2.01 and ecoregion 5.04 are associated with subsistence farming.

    Upper Mutale River

    Present Health:
    SASS good
    FAII good
    RVI fair
    Desired Health: good
    Mu1 Tshirovha confluence Mu2 Narrow roadside Mu3 Whboneni School bridge

    Lake Fundudzi has high cultural importance for the people of the area. Several caves with Khoi/San art occur nearby and add to the cultural importance of the area.
    A road runs parallel to the river, sometimes within the riparian zone.

    Local communities use the river for washing clothes and cars, causing erosion, sediment and solid waste.

    Grazing and cutting within the riparian zone accelerates erosion of riverbanks and river sedimentation.

    Mutale River

    Present Health:
    SASS fair
    FAII good
    RVI poor
    Desired Health: good
    Mu4 Mutale bridge below Sambandou

    Abstraction of water from agricultural weirs reduces flow considerably, while the weirs also act as barriers to fish migration.

    A road bridge and overgrazing cause erosion with resultant sedimentation in the river.

    Aquatic Biota Benefit from Floods

    Floods provide natural cues for fish and invertebrates to breed. Flooded marginal habitats provide sheltered areas for some fish to breed and for juvenile fish to develop.

    Lower down in the catchment, floodwaters are responsible for maintaining the connectivity of estuaries to the open sea. Estuaries act as important breeding grounds for many marine species. Open estuaries permit the migration of species such as eels to the upper catchments, where they play an important role in the riverís ecology.

    Mutale River

    Present Health:
    SASS good
    FAII good
    RVI good
    Desired Health: good
    Mu5 Tshikundamalema, Top of gorge Mu6 Guyuni Pools

    The Mutale River runs through an inaccessible gorge in ecoregion 2.01. The river has flattened out to form deep pools with riffles before it exits the gorge. Habitat in the gorge is dominated by bedrock rapids.

    Above the gorge, Tshikundalema village is located right next to the river. The plots extend to the riverbank and little riparian vegetation remains.

    Lower Mutale River

    Present Health:
    SASS good
    FAII poor
    RVI poor
    Desired Health: good
    Mu7 Tshikondeni bridge
    Excessive fishing is a problem.

    The riparian vegetation is over-utilised. In one area, maize is planted within the riparian zone.


    Coal-bearing formations occur in the Northern Province. During mining operations, pyrite is exposed to air and water, forming acid. This acid leaches into aquatic systems and can continue to impact on ecological health for decades after mining operations have stopped.

      The Tshiombedi and Sambandou Rivers - Tributaries of the Mutale River

    The Tshiombedi River has a steep gradient with waterfalls. Above the waterfalls, the river is almost natural with none or very little human impact.

    The Sambandou wetland is a source area for both the Luvuvhu and Mutale rivers.

    Tshiombedi River

    Present Health:
    SASS good
    FAII poor
    RVI poor
    Desired Health: good

    Tsh1 Old bridge

    Agricultural practices right up to the riverís edge and cutting of riparian vegetation reduces the riparian zone to a very narrow strip.

    The washing of maize, clothes and cars in the river is a common activity.

    Sambandou River

    Present Health:
    SASS fair
    FAII good
    RVI poor
    Desired Health: good
    Sam1 Bridge above Mutale confluence

    The biomonitoring team samples fish in the Sambandou Wetland.

    The Sambandou Wetland is thought to have a high conservation importance. The wetland is under pressure from agricultural developments and is rapidly being degraded by clearing and planting.

    Wetlands attenuate floodwaters

    Wetland habitats act as sponges that help to attenuate floodwaters.

    On a global basis, wetland habitats are amongst the most threatened habitat types. Wetlands are being drained to provide agricultural lands, to provide space for urban development and to reduce risks of diseases such as malaria, or are being dammed.

    Destruction of wetland habitats is one of the man-induced changes that influence the intensity and duration of floods.

    Floodwaters Recharge Aquifers

    Floodwaters are important for the recharge of aquifers and for the general flushing and cleansing of the river system. Flooding is often followed by several seasons of strong low flows, which allow aquatic communities to recovery.

    While very high flood flows are natural, it can be argued that the amplitude and frequency of flooding has changed due to human impacts. Under very high flows, river channels may change drastically and long established indigenous vegetation may be destroyed.

    The 2000 floods made significant impacts to the lower catchments of the Letaba and Luvuvhu Rivers. Scientists have little information with which to indicate whether these changes are completely natural, or are attributable to the combined effects of nature and poor catchment management practices.


    The Sambandou River after the 2000 flood.

      The Luvuvhu River in the Kruger National Park
    This section of the Luvuvhu River is surrounded by conservation areas, the Kruger National Park and the Makuya Provincial Reserve. It is desirable that this wilderness area be maintained in a natural state.
    Luvuvhu River

    Present Health:
    SASS natural
    FAII good
    RVI good
    Desired Health: natural
    Lu14 Shidzivani IFR site

    The Luvuvhu Gorge

    Migration Barriers and alien fish species

    Recently, a number of highly invasive alien fish have been recorded in the Limpopo River. As a result, there is now a debate over the benefits of erecting fishways on proposed new dams, since the structures may permit free passage of these invasive species across barriers and deeper into the river systems. Each dam should be assessed individually.

    Luvuvhu River

    Present Health:
    SASS natural
    FAII good
    RVI good
    Desired Health: natural
    Lu15  Madzaringwa Lu16  Mutale Bend
    The biggest threat to this area is the influences from outside the Kruger National Park, e.g. flow regulation and reduction, increased silt loads and spreading of alien plants. Alien plants such as cocklebur washed into the area during the 2000 floods.

    Land Disturbance and Alien Plants

    South Africa has many problem invasive alien plant species that out-compete and displace indigenous vegetation.

    Alien plants are often associated with disturbed areas caused by floodwaters and are the first to recolonise bare ground. These alien plants do not perform the same function as indigenous riparian vegetation and in areas where they are prolific, river banks can become very unstable. The cycle of disturbance and infestation is very difficult to break.

    Both the Luvuvhu and the Letaba catchments are heavily infested with these problem plants and recent floods have caused their numbers and distribution to increase.

    Luvuvhu River

    Present Health:
    SASS natural
    FAII good
    RVI good
    Desired Health: natural
    Lu17  Mangala IFR site2 Lu18  Bobomene camp Lu19  Crooks corner

    The Rivers and the Riparian Vegetation are Home to many Bird and Animal Species.

    The extensive riverine forest on the banks of the Luvuvhu River is a very important habitat. A large variety of organisms are dependent on the riparian zone in this dry landscape, including riparian birds and rare bat species.

    The riparian trees are also home to special bird species such as fish owl, tropical bou bou, longtailed starling and white backed herons.

    The hippos in this area almost became locally extinct during the 1992/3 droughts. The original 100 individuals declined until only one was left. Since then the hippo population has recovered to about 20 with individuals coming in from the Limpopo River and the flood plains.


    The biggest nyala populations in the KNP occurs here and crocodiles are abundant.

    As the Luvuvhu River exits the Lanner Gorge and enters the wide Pafuri floodplain, the gradient decreases.


    The area is largely unspoilt, but the 1993 drought compounded the effect of the upstream activities that caused low flows. The river came to a standstill, resulting in the death of many riparian trees.
    The area between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers has been proposed as a Ramsar site. This area will fall within the proposed Gaza-KNP-Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park.

    The high biodiversity in this area can be attributed to the geographic location as well as the diversity of landscape features. Three biomes converge in the Pafuri area.

    Nine geological features with contrasting rock types are found, including quartzite, sandstone, mudstone, shale and basic lavas.

    Extensive areas of floodplain alluvium occur at the confluence of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers. Several landscape features are found in this wetland, which include riverine forest, riparian floodplain forest, floodplain grassland and river channels and pans.

    The riverine forest is confined to the riverbanks. It consists of large, broad canopied trees more than 20 m in height.

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