Evidence for extreme variations in the permeability of laterite from a detailed analysis of well behaviour in Nigeria

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Laterite soils are widespread in tropical Africa and have a large impact on the hydrology of the areas they cover. The permeability of laterite helps determine the partitioning of runoff and interflow and regulates groundwater recharge to underlying bedrock. Groundwater within laterite also forms a widespread source of drinking water, typically from unimproved hang-dug-wells. Despite its importance, there is little published information on laterite aquifer properties. In this study, data from a 6 m deep well in Nigeria have been analysed to characterise the hydraulic conductivity of the laterite from repeated pumping tests. Transmissivity measurements from 40 tests spread out across a hydrological year varied from 0.1 to 1000 m2/d. Further interpretation of the data demonstrate a strong non-linear decrease in horizontal hydraulic conductivity with depth, characterised by an upper horizon of extreme permeability (400 m/d), and a much lower permeability profile beneath (<0.1 m/d). These data are substantiated with observations from other wells throughout the area. This non-linear permeability structure has several implications: the upper laterite can facilitate rapid lateral throughflow in the wet season, enabling contaminants to be transported significant distances (up to 1 km); natural groundwater levels are restricted to a narrow range for much of the year; and, in the dry season, the lower permeability of the deeper laterite restricts the amount of water which can be abstracted from shallow wells, leading to well failure. The work highlights the need for a wider study to better understand laterite soils and the role they play in regional hydrology. © 2013 Natural Environment Research Council. Hydrological Processes published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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