Assessment of hydrological pathways in East African montane catchments under different land use
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Conversion of natural forest (NF) to other land uses could lead to significant changes in catchment hydrology, but the nature of these changes has been insufficiently investigated in tropical montane catchments, especially in Africa. To address this knowledge gap, we aimed to identify stream water (RV) sources and flow paths in three tropical montane sub-catchments (27-36 km(2)) with different land use (natural forest, NF; smallholder agriculture, SHA; and commercial tea and tree plantations, TTP) within a 1021 km(2) catchment in the Mau Forest complex, Kenya. Weekly samples were collected from stream water, precipitation (PC) and mobile soil water for 75 weeks and analysed for stable isotopes of water (delta H-2 and delta O-18) for mean transit time (MTT) estimation with two lumped parameter models (gamma model, GM; and exponential piston flow model, EPM) and for the calculation of the young water fraction. Weekly samples from stream water and potential endmembers were collected over a period of 55 weeks and analysed for Li, Na, Mg, K, Rb, Sr and Ba for endmember mixing analysis (EMMA). Solute concentrations in precipitation were lower than in stream water in all catchments (p < 0.05), whereas concentrations in springs, shallow wells and wetlands were generally more similar to stream water. The stream water isotope signal was considerably damped compared to the isotope signal in precipitation. Mean transit time analysis suggested long transit times for stream water (up to 4 years) in the three sub-catchments, but model efficiencies were very low. The young water fraction ranged from 13% in the smallholder agriculture sub-catchment to 15% in the tea plantation sub-catchment. Mean transit times of mobile soil water ranged from 3.2-3.3 weeks in forest soils and 4.5-7.9 weeks in pasture soils at 15 cm depth to 10.4-10.8 weeks in pasture soils at 50 cm depth. The contribution of springs and wetlands to stream discharge increased from a median of 16.5 (95% confidence interval: 11.3-22.9), 2.1 (-3.0-24.2) and 50.2 (30.5-65.5) % during low flow to 20.7 (15.2-34.7), 53.0 (23.0-91.3) and 69.4 (43.0-123.9) % during high flow in the natural forest, smallholder agriculture and tea plantation sub-catchments, respectively. Our results indicate that groundwater is an important component of stream water, irrespective of land use. The results further suggest that the selected transit time models and tracers might not be appropriate in tropical catchments with highly damped stream water isotope signatures. A more in-depth investigation of the discharge dependence of the young water fraction and transit time estimation using other tracers, such as tritium, could therefore shed more light on potential land use effects on the hydrological behaviour of tropical montane catchments.
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