Articles | Volume 18, issue 6
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 2415–2431, 2014
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 2415–2431, 2014

Research article 26 Jun 2014

Research article | 26 Jun 2014

Characterisation of stable isotopes to identify residence times and runoff components in two meso-scale catchments in the Abay/Upper Blue Nile basin, Ethiopia

S. Tekleab4,3,2,1, J. Wenninger4,1, and S. Uhlenbrook4,1 S. Tekleab et al.
  • 1UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, Department of Water Science and Engineering, P.O. Box 3015, 2601 DA Delft, the Netherlands
  • 2Addis Ababa University, Institute for Environment, Water and Development, P.O. Box 1176, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • 3Hawassa University, Institute of Technology, Department of Irrigation and Water Resources Engineering, P.O. Box 5, Hawassa, Ethiopia
  • 4Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Civil Engineering and Applied Geosciences, Water Resources Section, P.O. Box 5048, 2600 GA Delft, the Netherlands

Abstract. Measurements of the stable isotopes oxygen-18 (18O) and deuterium (2H) were carried out in two meso-scale catchments, Chemoga (358 km2) and Jedeb (296 km2) south of Lake Tana, Abay/Upper Blue Nile basin, Ethiopia. The region is of paramount importance for the water resources in the Nile basin, as more than 70% of total Nile water flow originates from the Ethiopian highlands. Stable isotope compositions in precipitation, spring water and streamflow were analysed (i) to characterise the spatial and temporal variations of water fluxes; (ii) to estimate the mean residence time of water using a sine wave regression approach; and (iii) to identify runoff components using classical two-component hydrograph separations on a seasonal timescale.

The results show that the isotopic composition of precipitation exhibits marked seasonal variations, which suggests different sources of moisture generation for the rainfall in the study area. The Atlantic–Indian Ocean, Congo basin, Upper White Nile and the Sudd swamps are the potential moisture source areas during the main rainy (summer) season, while the Indian–Arabian and Mediterranean Sea moisture source areas during little rain (spring) and dry (winter) seasons. The spatial variation in the isotopic composition is influenced by the amount effect as depicted by moderate coefficients of determination on a monthly timescale (R2 varies from 0.38 to 0.68) and weak regression coefficients (R2 varies from 0.18 to 0.58) for the altitude and temperature effects. A mean altitude effect accounting for −0.12‰/100 m for 18O and −0.58‰/100 m for 2H was discernible in precipitation isotope composition.

Results from the hydrograph separation on a seasonal timescale indicate the dominance of event water, with an average of 71 and 64% of the total runoff during the wet season in the Chemoga and Jedeb catchments, respectively.

Moreover, the stable isotope compositions of streamflow samples were damped compared to the input function of precipitation for both catchments. This damping was used to estimate mean residence times of stream water of 4.1 and 6.0 months at the Chemoga and Jedeb catchment outlets, respectively. Short mean residence times and high fractions of event water components recommend catchment management measures aiming at reduction of overland flow/soil erosion and increasing of soil water retention and recharge to enable sustainable development in these agriculturally dominated catchments.