Evaluating rainwater harvesting systems in arid and semi-arid regions

Ammar, Adham Ali


Rainwater harvesting (RWH) is an ancient traditional technology practised in many parts of the world, especially in arid and semi-arid regions (ASARs). ASARs represent 40% of the earth’s land surface and are characterised by low average annual rainfall and uneven temporal and spatial distributions of that rainfall. In these regions an efficient use of the limited amount of rainfall available is important, e.g. by collecting and using surface runoff (water harvesting). Lately, access to water for agriculture and domestic use has become worse because of increasing population, higher levels of human activity and the impacts of climate change. The inhabitants of ASARs have developed several RWH techniques to increase the water availability, thus coping with water shortages. RWH is an important mitigation strategy to the impact of climate change on water availability in ASARs.

Four main methodologies of site selection were categorised, ranging from those based only on biophysical criteria to more integrated approaches that include socioeconomic criteria. Our analysis suggests that the integration of multi-criteria analysis (MCA) with a geographic information system (GIS) is the most advanced approach. It offers high potential in data-poor regions; GIS-based hydrological modelling is always recommended for data-rich regions.

The potential for RWH in wadi Horan (western desert of Iraq) was identified using a GIS-based suitability model. The method for selecting suitable sites for RWH was then further developed into an evaluation and decision support tool for assessing the overall performance of existing RWH systems by integrating engineering, biophysical and socioeconomic criteria using MCA supported by GIS. It was tested in the wadi Oum Zessar in southeastern Tunisia.

A simple but generally applicable water harvesting model (WHCatch) was developed to investigate and optimise the performance of the RWH systems under various scenarios of design and management, It was tested in wadi Oum Zessar. The advantages of simulating long-term water balances at the sub-catchment level for improving our understanding of hydrological processes in an RWH system are emphasised. Several solutions for optimising RWH performance in various scenarios are provided.

Finally, the impact of climate change on existing RWH systems in the Oum Zessar watershed under current and future scenarios of climate was investigated. The downscaled maximum and minimum temperatures clearly indicated an increasing trend in the mean monthly temperature and the generated precipitation tended to decrease in the future. It was shown that the combination of changing the flow direction and the spillway height had a large impact on the performance of the RWH systems under current and future conditions. Water management and structural design at the sub-catchment level plays a more important role than climate change in the performance of RWH.