Note: this question was totally rephrased and expanded on, addressing the comments and questions posed to the first version.

The de-facto standard source for runoff calculations in South Africa is the "SANRAL Runoff Manual" (http://www.nra.co.za/content/Drain5.pdf)

I need to design a weir for a small earth dam in an arid area with a small (smaller than 200 ha), fairly flat catchment area in southern Africa. The idea behind the dam is to collect not more than 10 000 cubic metres of water for small stock watering purposes for the immediate time after the rainy season, somewhat reducing the dependency on ground water.

To design the dam wall and the spillway, one needs flow data through the catchment area in question. The rational method provides this formula: $Q=\frac{CIA}{3,6}$              ...(3.8)
where: $Q \hskip{1.5em}= $ peak flow (m3/s)
   $C \hskip{1.7em}= $ run-off coeficient (dimensionless)
   $I\hskip{2em} = $ average rainfall intensity over catchment (mm/hour)
   $A \hskip{1.7em}= $ effective area of catchment (km2)
   $3,6\quad = $ conversion factor

In arid areas rainfall events often are thunderstorms of fairly short duration, often less than an hour. These events are separated by long dry periods. Rainfall is generally measured on a daily basis. These recorded values are daily rainfall values, but they say nothing about the duration of the rainfall events.

Rainfall intensity is determined by dividing rainfall by the duration of the rainfall event. Thus, the shorter the rainfall event, the higher the rainfall intensity for the same amount of total rainfall. But since rainfall is not really measured by the second, minute or hour it is impossible to accurately determine rainfall intensity in areas where the rainfall events are short. In fact the margin for error increases tremendously as the duration of rainfall events decreases.

Using rainfall this data (with a large margin of error) for large catchment areas is not recommended, since the rainfall does not have a "temporal distribution for at least a duration equal to the time of Concentration" (page 3.17). Q would be over-estimated and thus dams and spillways would be over-designed.

The opposite is true for small catchment areas, where the time of concentration is less than the duration of a rainfall event. The margin of error in the rainfall intensity calculation will become unacceptably critical. Especially for very small dams they will either be under designed, or they will be financially unfeasible.

Is there an alternative method to determine runoff in arid areas, where rainfall events are of short duration and accurate rainfall data (rainfall and duration of rainfall events) is not available?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @mart ... your 'cigarette box calculation' is very far from what the hydrological approach is. You did not take into account topography, evaporation, percolation etc. Also, catching the entire rainfall is unfair for downstream communities, thus a percentage must be allowed to pass. Dam design is not that easy :) $\endgroup$
    – SlydeRule
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 10:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ the problem is that I need to establish the 50 year, 100 year and 150 year floods in a perennial river where there is no data available, except rudimentary daily rainfall and a topographical survey. To design the dam height and spillway, you need the runoff. "The rest" doesn't help me. The rational method for this area gives me excessively high values which don't make any sense. $\endgroup$
    – SlydeRule
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 15:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ So your problem is the lack of accurate data (50yr, 100yr, 150yr) and not the method used. As @air mentions, you are stating that there is a problem with the method when you aren't sure of your input values. $\endgroup$
    – hazzey
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 21:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Let me rephrase the question then ... $\endgroup$
    – SlydeRule
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 7:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @mart This is already cross-posted on earth science and being on-topic somewhere else does not make it off-topic here. Dam and weir design is very much an engineering concern. $\endgroup$
    – Air
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 16:16

4 Answers 4


There is something wrong here... a catchement area of max 200 hectares...and only 10 000 cubic meters?

1ha is 10 000 square meters (100x100 meters) so 200 ha is 2 000 000 square meters which makes the height necessary to equal 10k/2M meters or 0.005 meters= 5 millimeter.

I'm pretty sure over that area ground penetration and evaporation would be higher, it would need to be impenetrable so just evaporation is a factor..even then... I'm fairly certain it rains more than 5 millimeters in the rainy season. You aren't trying to build this in Sahara desert by chance?


If you're talking precipitation, basic emphasis is

ONE inch of rain over an US Acre of land is roughly equivalent to 27,154 US Gallons (102,788 Liters). Because Arid soils tend not to absorb huge quantities because lack of self cohesiveness with soil moisture (Water sticks to water). On average Xeric sandy soils will absorb less. Clay Soils will absorb more. And Silty soils with hard pan will absorb virtually none.



Determining runoff in arid areas, especially in developing countries, can be challenging due to limited data availability and unique environmental conditions. However, several methods and techniques can be employed to estimate runoff effectively.

1.Remote Sensing and GIS: Use remote sensing and GIS to understand land cover and terrain, aiding in runoff estimation.

2.Rainfall-Runoff Models: Adapt models like SCS-CN or SWAT for arid regions, considering rainfall, soil, and land use.

3.Empirical Methods: Utilize historical data for runoff estimation when extensive data is lacking.

4.Hydrological Networks: Set up monitoring networks to collect real-time data, improving runoff predictions.

Consider using the "Civil Notes" app for in-depth study resources on hydrology and water resource engineering. Civil Notes


After some thought it occurred to me that sedimentary data would exist showing previous flood events. To examine this would require soil samples to be taken where sediment has built up inside a river bend. The fine materials will remain on upper levels of each flood event and historic rainfall data may shed light on volume in catchment.

*Edit: I have since completed my hydrology and Geotechnical applications modules in my civil engineering degree and understand this question far better since its updated expansion. I used to live in both South Africa and Zimbabwe to understand the nature of the data in question.

A friend of mine used to do exactly this job as a land surveyor for farmers. Taking into account the extremities of weather phenomena with climate change, historical designs may be incredibly shaky for future issues. I work for a major global civil engineering company in UK and today had a lecture on how this company mitigates global warming in its construction efforts, designs for increased rainfall, manages flood defences, etc. On just one of its projects, the project's entire CO2 emissions will exceed the annual emissions of Birmingham City, England unless something is done to mitigate them. That is huge. A city of 2m+ residents and all the vehicles passing through the city and motorways don't emit as much as the construction project. Imagine that!

Now consider that in that lecture they told me that they have had to take a 40% increase in water deluge events for capacity mitigation in the designs.

What that means is this: You're designing for 200 year events that occur at 142.8 year intervals instead. Your 50 year events become 35.7 year events. Now extrapolate that in reverse: your 50 year events are as bad as 1:70 year events and fall under the 1 in 100 year events category. I think the only sensible thing you an do with such data is to add 40% increase in rain quantity events and 60% increase in drought duration events. Result: higher flow rate over shorter time with longer intervals with greater erosion with higher velocity+ lower sedimentaion on bends

  • $\begingroup$ To my knowledge on cannot deduce detail runoff data from geology as you explained. Do you have a reference? $\endgroup$
    – SlydeRule
    Commented Sep 11, 2021 at 3:11
  • $\begingroup$ This is an interisting approach. Unfortunately the costs of such a study are often not recoverable or reaosnable. $\endgroup$
    – SlydeRule
    Commented Mar 29 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ I am not so sure about that. This is a core sample of sedimentary deposits. Records of rainfall events usually exist somewhere in the world for these arid areas and it is a case of comparison of samples cores vs historical meteorological data available for inspection over the past couple hundred years. A river may only have flowed 2 or 3 times in which case analysis of sand deposit composition vs records would show the sedimentary banding of the flow events for the catchment area of those flooding events $\endgroup$
    – Rhodie
    Commented May 22 at 13:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.