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Drivers of field-saturated soil hydraulic conductivity: Implications for restoring degraded tropical landscapes

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Water security represents a major challenge in East Africa, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people and hindering sustainable development. Predicted increases in rainfall intensity and variability are expected to exacerbate water insecurity and land degradation. Improving soil infiltrability is an effective strategy for addressing water insecurity and land degradation. Research on soil infiltrability is often highly localized; therefore, scientific understanding of the drivers of infiltrability on larger spatial scales is limited. The aim of this study was to understand the main drivers of infiltrability across five contrasting landscapes in Kenya. We measured field-saturated hydraulic conductivity (Kfs) in 257 plots and collected data for variables representing soil properties (sand content, soil organic carbon (SOC) and pH), land degradation (grazing pressure and presence of erosion), vegetation quantity (woody aboveground biomass), and vegetation quality (functional properties and diversity). We used generalized mixed-effects models to test for the effects of these variables on Kfs. Median Kfs for the five sites ranged between 23.8 and 101.8 mm h−1. We found that Kfs was positively associated with sand content (standardized effect 0.39), SOC content (0.15), and functional diversity of woody vegetation (0.09), while it had a negative relationship with the presence of erosion (−0.24) and grazing pressure (−0.09). Subsequently, we conclude that infiltrability can be enhanced through using land restoration strategies which specifically target parameters that affect Kfs. The results further support that Kfs is not solely dictated by inherent soil properties, and that management interventions which boost SOC, reduce erosion, and minimize unsustainable grazing can help address water scarcity by restoring soil hydrological function.

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