Negative trade-off between changes in vegetation water use and infiltration recovery after reforesting degraded pasture land in the Nepalese Lesser Himalaya
- 1Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC), University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands
- 2Critical Zone Hydrology Group, Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
- 3The Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science under the auspices of Unesco, The Peters Building, University of Dundee, Dundee, DD14HN, Scotland, UK
Abstract. This work investigates the trade-off between increases in vegetation water use and rain water infiltration afforded by soil improvement after reforesting severely degraded grassland in the Lesser Himalaya of central Nepal. The hillslope hydrological functioning (surface and subsurface soil hydraulic conductivities and overland flow generation) and the evapotranspiration (rainfall interception and transpiration) of the following contrasting vegetation types were quantified and examined in detail: (i) a nearly undisturbed, natural broadleaved forest; (ii) a 25-year-old, intensively-used pine plantation; and (iii) a highly degraded pasture. Planting pines increased vegetation water use relative to the pasture and natural forest situation by 355 and 55 mm year−1, respectively. On balance, the limited amount of extra infiltration afforded by the pine plantation relative to the pasture (only 90 mm year−1 due to continued soil degradation associated with regular harvesting of litter and understory vegetation in the plantation) proved insufficient to compensate the higher water use of the pines. As such, observed declines in dry season flows in the study area are thought to mainly reflect the higher water use of the pines although the effect could be moderated by better forest and soil management promoting infiltration. In contrast, a comparison of the water use of the natural forest and degraded pasture suggests that replacing the latter by (mature) broadleaved forest would (ultimately) have a near-neutral effect on dry season flows as the approximate gains in infiltration and evaporative losses were very similar (ca. 300 mm year−1 each). The results of the present study underscore the need for proper forest management for optimum hydrological functioning as well as the importance of protecting the remaining natural forests in the region.