Global synthesis of groundwater recharge in semiarid and arid regions

Hydrological Processes
By: , and 



Global synthesis of the findings from ∼140 recharge study areas in semiarid and arid regions provides important information on recharge rates, controls, and processes, which are critical for sustainable water development. Water resource evaluation, dryland salinity assessment (Australia), and radioactive waste disposal (US) are among the primary goals of many of these recharge studies. The chloride mass balance (CMB) technique is widely used to estimate recharge. Average recharge rates estimated over large areas (40–374 000 km2) range from 0·2 to 35 mm year−1, representing 0·1–5% of long-term average annual precipitation. Extreme local variability in recharge, with rates up to ∼720 m year−1, results from focussed recharge beneath ephemeral streams and lakes and preferential flow mostly in fractured systems. System response to climate variability and land use/land cover (LU/LC) changes is archived in unsaturated zone tracer profiles and in groundwater level fluctuations. Inter-annual climate variability related to El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results in up to three times higher recharge in regions within the SW US during periods of frequent El Niños (1977–1998) relative to periods dominated by La Niñas (1941–1957). Enhanced recharge related to ENSO is also documented in Argentina. Climate variability at decadal to century scales recorded in chloride profiles in Africa results in recharge rates of 30 mm year−1 during the Sahel drought (1970–1986) to 150 mm year−1 during non-drought periods. Variations in climate at millennial scales in the SW US changed systems from recharge during the Pleistocene glacial period (≥10 000 years ago) to discharge during the Holocene semiarid period. LU/LC changes such as deforestation in Australia increased recharge up to about 2 orders of magnitude. Changes from natural grassland and shrublands to dryland (rain-fed) agriculture altered systems from discharge (evapotranspiration, ET) to recharge in the SW US. The impact of LU change was much greater than climate variability in Niger (Africa), where replacement of savanna by crops increased recharge by about an order of magnitude even during severe droughts. Sensitivity of recharge to LU/LC changes suggests that recharge may be controlled through management of LU. In irrigated areas, recharge varies from 10 to 485 mm year−1, representing 1–25% of irrigation plus precipitation. However, irrigation pumpage in groundwater-fed irrigated areas greatly exceeds recharge rates, resulting in groundwater mining. Increased recharge related to cultivation has mobilized salts that accumulated in the unsaturated zone over millennia, resulting in widespread groundwater and surface water contamination, particularly in Australia. The synthesis of recharge rates provided in this study contains valuable information for developing sustainable groundwater resource programmes within the context of climate variability and LU/LC change. 

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Global synthesis of groundwater recharge in semiarid and arid regions
Series title Hydrological Processes
DOI 10.1002/hyp.6335
Volume 20
Issue 15
Year Published 2006
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Description 36 p.
First page 3335
Last page 3370
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