Avulsion mechanisms on the Okavango fan, Botswana: the control of a fluvial system by vegetation



A study of the avulsion of a major distributory channel on the alluvial fan (22 000 km2 in area) of the Okavango River in northern Botswana has revealed that channels serve as arterial systems distributing water which sustains large areas of permanent swamp. The channels are vegetatively confined. A primary channel, defined here as a channel which receives water and sediment directly from the fan apex, aggrades vertically as a result of bedload deposition. The rate of aggradation increases downchannel and may exceed 5 cm yr−1 in the distal reaches. Rapid aggradation is associated with a decline in flow velocity. This initiates a series of feedback mechanisms involving invasion of the channel by aquatic plants which trap floating plant debris, further reducing flow rate and causing the channel water surface to become elevated, thereby increasing rate of water loss from the channel, accelerating blockage and aggradation. The channel ultimately fails. Enhanced water loss from the channel promotes the growth of flanking swamp vegetation, which confines the failing channel. Increased flow through the swamp erodes pre-existing hippopotamus trails, producing a secondary channel system which overlaps but does not connect directly to the failing reach of the primary channel. The region of failure of the primary channel migrates upstream, accompanied by headward propagation of the secondary channel system. The swamp distal to the failed primary channel dessicates and is destroyed by peat fires. Secondary channels are stable and not prone to blockage. Comparison with avulsions described in other river systems indicates that the influence of plants in the Okavango River system is exceptionally strong.