Articles | Volume 14, issue 10
Research article
11 Oct 2010
Research article |  | 11 Oct 2010

A multi basin SWAT model analysis of runoff and sedimentation in the Blue Nile, Ethiopia

Z. M. Easton, D. R. Fuka, E. D. White, A. S. Collick, B. Biruk Ashagre, M. McCartney, S. B. Awulachew, A. A. Ahmed, and T. S. Steenhuis

Abstract. A multi basin analysis of runoff and erosion in the Blue Nile Basin, Ethiopia was conducted to elucidate sources of runoff and sediment. Erosion is arguably the most critical problem in the Blue Nile Basin, as it limits agricultural productivity in Ethiopia, degrades benthos in the Nile, and results in sedimentation of dams in downstream countries. A modified version of the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model was developed to predict runoff and sediment losses from the Ethiopian Blue Nile Basin. The model simulates saturation excess runoff from the landscape using a simple daily water balance coupled to a topographic wetness index in ways that are consistent with observed runoff processes in the basin. The spatial distribution of landscape erosion is thus simulated more correctly. The model was parameterized in a nested design for flow at eight and sediment at three locations in the basin. Subbasins ranged in size from 1.3 to 174 000 km2, and interestingly, the partitioning of runoff and infiltrating flow could be predicted by topographic information. Model predictions showed reasonable accuracy (Nash Sutcliffe Efficiencies ranged from 0.53–0.92) with measured data across all sites except Kessie, where the water budget could not be closed; however, the timing of flow was well captured. Runoff losses increased with rainfall during the monsoonal season and were greatest from areas with shallow soils and large contributing areas. Analysis of model results indicate that upland landscape erosion dominated sediment delivery to the main stem of the Blue Nile in the early part of the growing season when tillage occurs and before the soil was wetted up and plant cover was established. Once plant cover was established in mid August landscape erosion was negligible and sediment export was dominated by channel processes and re-suspension of landscape sediment deposited early in the growing season. These results imply that targeting small areas of the landscape where runoff is produced can be the most effective at controlling erosion and protecting water resources. However, it is not clear what can be done to manage channel erosion, particularly in first order streams in the basin.