Impact of transient groundwater storage on the discharge of Himalayan rivers

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
Year published:
Published online

In the course of the transfer of precipitation into rivers, water is temporarily stored in reservoirs with different residence times1, 2 such as soils, groundwater, snow and glaciers. In the central Himalaya, the water budget is thought to be primarily controlled by monsoon rainfall, snow and glacier melt3, 4, and secondarily by evapotranspiration3. An additional contribution from deep groundwater5, 6, 7 has been deduced from the chemistry of Himalayan rivers6, but its importance in the annual water budget remains to be evaluated. Here we analyse records of daily precipitation and discharge within twelve catchments in Nepal over about 30 years. We observe annual hysteresis loops—that is, a time lag between precipitation and discharge—in both glaciated and unglaciated catchments and independent of the geological setting. We infer that water is stored temporarily in a reservoir with characteristic response time of about 45 days, suggesting a diffusivity typical of fractured basement aquifers8. We estimate this transient storage capacity at about 28km3 for the three main Nepal catchments; snow and glacier melt contribute around 14km3yr−1, about 10% of the annual river discharge. We conclude that groundwater storage in a fractured basement influences significantly the Himalayan river discharge cycle.

At a glance


  1. Hydrological setting of the Nepal Himalayas.
    Figure 1: Hydrological setting of the Nepal Himalayas.

    a, Precipitation distribution map; hydrological discharge stations used in this study (diamonds) and contours (red lines) of the studied drainage basins. Grey lines mark political boundaries. Mean annual precipitation rates (see Methods), representing 50 years of data, are draped over shaded relief. River network is shown in blue and glaciers in white (after ref. 29). b, Mean basin-wide precipitation (1951–2006, in green) and potential evapotranspiration (red) for the Narayani drainage basin. The bold blue line with blue shading represents the mean, maximum and minimum daily discharge over 34 years (station 450). c, Simplified geological map of Nepal30: QS; Quaternary Sediments; SW, Siwaliks Formation; LH, metasediments of the Lesser Himalayas; HHC, High Himalayan Crystalline; TSS, Tethyan Sediment Series.

  2. Precipitation-discharge (P-Q) anticlockwise hysteresis plot.
    Figure 2: Precipitation–discharge (PQ) anticlockwise hysteresis plot.

    a, Bi-logarithmic PQ plot of daily data for the Narayani basin over 34 years at station 450 (~12,300 data points). Data plotted are specific discharges (discharges normalized by drainage area) and mean basin precipitation rates. Note that discharge is not plotted when precipitation is zero. Colour bar is scaled for a calendar year. White filled circles represent the mean monthly values over 34 years, the months being indicated by numbers. The error bars represent the 5% and 95% quantiles of the daily data distribution of each month. Inset shows the data filtered with a 30-day moving average. b, Mean annual hysteresis loops plotted from monthly mean data for all the drainage basins. Solid lines represent partially glaciated basins and dashed lines unglaciated ones (percentage of glacial coverage from ref. 29).

  3. 10-year (1997-2006) temporal variability of several hydrological compartments, Narayani basin.
    Figure 3: 10-year (1997–2006) temporal variability of several hydrological compartments, Narayani basin.

    a, Daily precipitation (green) and daily specific river discharge (blue). b, Temperature (orange) as a glacier melt proxy (from CRU; ref. 26) and percentage of basin-wide snow cover (dark green, data from MODIS MOD10C2 v.5 (ref. 25) with an 8-day temporal resolution). c, Calculated groundwater storage (red), shading illustrating model uncertainty (Supplementary Fig. S2). Ground water table variation (dark blue) observed in a dug-well in Jhikhu Khola Basin22 (station no. 1) from ref. 22 and unpublished data provided by these authors. The abnormal low water table in 2004 probably results from exhaustive exploitation.


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Author information


  1. Géosciences Rennes, Université de Rennes 1, CNRS, Campus de Beaulieu, 35042 Rennes, France

    • Christoff Andermann,
    • Laurent Longuevergne,
    • Alain Crave &
    • Philippe Davy
  2. Remote Sensing Group, Geology Institute, TU Bergakademie Freiberg, B.-von-Cotta-Str. 2, 09599 Freiberg, Germany

    • Christoff Andermann &
    • Richard Gloaguen
  3. Géosciences Environnement Toulouse, Université de Toulouse, CNRS-UPS-IRD, Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées, 14 Av. Edouard Belin, 31400 Toulouse, France

    • Stéphane Bonnet


C.A. acquired and analysed the data. L.L. and C.A. performed the hydrological modelling. All authors discussed the results and wrote the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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