What is the hydrologically effective area of a catchment?

Yan Liu, Thorsten Wagener, Hylke E. Beck, Andreas Hartmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Topographically delineated catchments are the common spatial unit to connect human activities and climate change with their consequences for water availability as a prerequisite for sustainable water management. However, inter-catchment groundwater flow and limited connectivity within the catchment results in effective catchment areas different from those suggested by surface topography. Here, we introduce the notion of effective catchment area quantified through an effective catchment index (ECI), derived from observed streamflow, precipitation and actual evapotranspiration estimates, to understand the prevalence and significance of substantial differences between topographic and effective catchment areas in a global dataset. We evaluate our ECI analysis by comparing it to hydraulic head simulations of a global groundwater flow model and to the Budyko framework. We find that one in three studied catchments exhibit an effective catchment area either larger than double or smaller than half of their topographic area. These catchments will likely be affected by management activities such as groundwater pumping or land use change outside their topographic boundaries. Or alternatively, they affect water resources beyond their topographic boundaries. We find that the magnitude of the observed differences is strongly linked to aridity, mean slope, distance to coast, and topographic area. Our study provides a first-order identification of catchments where additional in-depth analysis of subsurface connectivity is needed to support sustainable water management.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Generated from Scopus record by KAUST IRTS on 2023-02-14

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment


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