Application of electrical resistivity inversion to delineate salt and freshwater interfaces in quaternary sediments of northwest Himalaya, Pakistan

  • Perveiz Khalid
  • Saif Ullah
  • Asam Farid
Original Paper


Delineation of saline water and freshwater interfaces is a primary objective in groundwater studies and groundwater management. Karak valley, NW Himalaya of Pakistan is situated in a semiarid region where the continuous supply of freshwater is challenging because of high salinity values in groundwater. In this study, vertical electrical resistivity and borehole data are used to mark the freshwater and saline water interfaces. Borehole data collected from different locations in the study area is used to interpret various subsurface lithologies and to calibrate the modeled resistivity curves. The electrical resistivity data indicates that a thick cover of Quaternary sediments is present in the valley. The re-inversion of electrical resistivity data with modern analysis techniques is highly effective to map the boundary between fresh and saline water aquifers in the valley. Inversion technique is applied to generate 2D and 3D subsurface resistivity maps for the delineation of fresh and saltwater surfaces. The presence of saline water aquifer with clay rich sediments is identified by very low resistivity values on the northern part of the valley whereas relatively high resistivity values with sand and gravel sediments on the southeastern part of the valley indicate the presence of freshwater aquifer. The generated 2D resistivity surface maps at different depth levels above and below the water table and formation resistivity distribution map are effectively used to mark the boundary between fresh and saline water zones. The zone of brackish water is clearly seen in the resistivity inverse model at a depth of 5–30 m.


Electrical resistivity Saline groundwater Quaternary sediments Karak valley 


Investigation of fresh groundwater zones in an area plays a significant role in the supply of freshwater to the community usage as well as for urbanization. Mapping and delineation of freshwater and saline water aquifers are essential before planning of any drilling, pumping, and water extraction strategies. Constant monitoring of saline water and freshwater interfaces and intrusion of saline water into freshwater aquifer is necessary for proper management and development of groundwater reservoirs. In coastal areas, the saline water intrusion into freshwater aquifer is very common (Barlow and Reichard 2010; Tam et al. 2014). However, in sedimentary basins, the intrusion of saltwater into freshwater aquifer is mostly caused by over abstraction of groundwater (Barlow 2003). Saline water intrusion reduces fresh water storage capacity and leads to the abandonment of water supply wells with very high concentrations of dissolved ions (Waller 1988; Barlow 2003). Groundwater resources can be maintained only if their spatial extent and variation with time are properly studied and understood (Zektser and Everett 2004).

Surface geophysical techniques for mapping of saline and fresh groundwater zones and aquifer properties have been widely used over the last few years due to the development of latest technology in microprocessors and associated numerical modeling solutions. These geophysical techniques include surface resistivity, proton magnetic resonance (PMR), geomagnetic, seismic, gravity, radioactivity, electromagnetic, and ground penetrating radar GPR (MacDonald et al. 2001; Barlow 2003; Parsekian et al. 2015). Vertical electrical sounding (VES) is commonly used to investigate the subsurface lithologies and to delineate fresh and saline water zones. This technique is regularly used to solve a wide variety of groundwater problems such as determination the boundary between fresh and saline water zones (Adeoti et al. 2010; Hodlur et al. 2010; Sikandar et al. 2010), delineation groundwater contamination (Enikanselu 2008; Ugwu and Nwosu 2009; Abdullahi et al. 2011), and groundwater exploration in hard rock (Armada et al. 2009; K’Orowe et al. 2011; Nwankwo 2011). The subsurface electrical resistivity values not only depend on the lithological makeup of the aquifer but also depend on the pore fluids of the aquifer.

Pakistan is situated in arid to semiarid region where freshwater demand is increasing continuously because of urbanization and rapid population growth. In result of arid to semiarid climate, large areas of the country have limited supply of groundwater. Naturally, groundwater is recharged by rain and melting snow and also to a smaller extent by rivers and lakes (Zektser and Everett 2004). Fresh groundwater is mostly present at shallower depths in the sequence of geological layers that have high pore spaces or fractures and voids. Karak Valley is situated in the district Karak of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province of Pakistan (Fig. 1a). This valley is in the shape of an east-west elongated alluvial plain which is surrounded by mountains. The whole area is situated in semiarid environment. The groundwater quality in the northern side of the valley is very poor due to the presence of rock salt content in the northern mountains which is dissolved by water runoff and contaminates the groundwater (Ghumman et al. 2014; Hassan et al. 2014). The groundwater potential and the delineation between saline and freshwater aquifers in the valley is the challenging task. This study focuses on the investigation of the groundwater potential in Karak Valley and to map the fresh and saline water zones with calibration of available drilled boreholes and to map the boundary between the fresh and saline water aquifers.
Fig. 1

a Regional location map of Pakistan. The study area is highlighted with gray color rectangle. b Digital elevation model shows the local tectonics and major geomorphology of the area

General geology and geomorphology

Pakistan is located at the junction of two major tectonic plates—Indian plate and Eurasian plate—thus very complex geology and tectonic settings exist. Karak Valley is a part of Kohat-Potwar Plateau (Fig. 1b) which is on the southern part of the Himalayan and Karakorum orogenic belt and is a result of compressional tectonics after the Indo-Eurasian collision (Paracha et al. 2000). Karak Valley is located in north-east of Bannu Basin, in the north of Surghar Ranges and in the south of Kohat Plateau as shown in Fig. 1b. It is situated between the latitudes of 33° 03′ and 33° 12′ North and the longitudes of 71° 01′ and 71° 22′ East as shown in Fig. 2. The valley plain is bounded by mountains of the Kohat Plateau in the north and eastern side and by the Surghar Ranges in the southern side. The valley is open on the western side and connects to the Domail plain in Bannu basin as shown in Fig. 1b and Fig. 2.
Fig. 2

Base map showing location of VES points, boreholes, stream channels, cross-sections, out crops, and boundary of Karak Valley

Total drainage basin of the valley is about 274 km2 out of which 150 km2 is covered with alluvium (Kruseman and Naqavi 1988). The drainage pattern of the valley can be divided into two parts, the large western catchment and the small eastern catchment part as shown in Fig. 2. The large western catchment part mainly flows southwest towards the Kurram River in Domail plain of Bannu basin and a number of small tributaries connect to it as shown in Fig. 2. The small eastern catchment part flows by small tributaries in the northern direction as shown in base map of the area (Fig. 2). The altitude of the alluvial plain dips gradually from about 850 m above mean sea level (AMSL) in the east to about 450 m AMSL in the west. A significant number of gullies and nullahs, which originates from the surrounding mountains, intersect the plain. These surrounding mountains attain heights of up to 1250 m AMSL.

The Karak thrust and Karak anticline as shown in Fig. 3 are two main features that bound the study area and are parts of the southern Kohat Plateau. Karak and Surghar Ranges are characterized by a series of valleys and strongly marked parallel ridges. Towards the south, the high peaks occur in the conglomerates and the massive coarse-grained sandstone exposed in the Surghar Ranges where they raise up to 1472 m AMSL. The mountains bordering the northern side of the valley consist mainly of limestone interbedded with gypsum and underlain by shale and clay. The Bahadurkhel Salt Formation is also exposed in the northern mountains. The southern mountains consist of sandstones, conglomerates, and shales. A number of elongated valleys have been developed in these regions which are occupied by the relatively soft intercalated shale and sandstone. A main stream excavating its course in the Quaternary alluvium in this area forms the east-west Karak Valley with an elevation of about 580 m.
Fig. 3

Regional geology of the southern Kohat Plateau (Searle et al. 1996) with highlighted location of study area

The near surface geology in the study area was mapped with the help of available boreholes at shallow depths as shown in Fig. 4. Bedrock comprising different sedimentary formations mostly shale and sandstone exists at variable depths. An alluvial fill of Quaternary age overlies the bedrock with a thickness of several meters. The alluvium sediments mainly consist of clay, silty clay, and sand with gravels and boulders of varying depths.
Fig. 4

Boreholes in the study area representing the shallow subsurface geology


A comprehensive groundwater investigation was conducted in Karak Valley under the bilateral agreement between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) government, Pakistan (at that time N. W. F. P and now KPK) and the Netherland government. The study was conducted by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Pakistan, in consultation with a team of Groundwater Survey TNO, Delft, Netherlands. The investigations were primarily directed to establish the groundwater potential and the best zones of ground water exploitation. Total 69 vertical electrical soundings (VES) were performed using Schlumberger configuration with half current electrode spacing (AB/2) that ranged from 1.5 to 500 m. For convenience, the VES points were generally collected at a distance (sampling interval) of approximately 0.5 to 1 km, mostly along roads and existing tracks as shown in Fig. 2.

The analysis of VES curves is sometimes more difficult task and requires that the measured curve be matched with several model curves and each model curve represents different subsurface resistivity distributions. Hence, the selection of the final interpretive model is constrained by the available geological information and borehole data in that area. The most valuable information includes subsurface lithology, water level, and distribution of water electrical conductivities (EC). All the VES data points were modeled (Fig. 5) using the IPI2WIN software (IPIWIN-1D 2000; Zananiri et al. 2006; Sultan et al. 2009; Farid et al. 2013), using information derived from lithology logs, ground water levels, geologic maps, and EC maps. The resistivity models are generated and plotted between the resistivity values verses depths and consist of sequences of horizontal layers differentiated according to discrete bands of resistivity as shown in Fig. 5a–f. General calibration between lithology and resistivity is established using available borehole information and resistivity data and is shown in Table 1 and in Fig. 6.
Fig. 5

af Apparent resistivity data are marked by small circles. Solid black curve represents the apparent resistivity curve. Red curve is the best-fitted curve to the apparent resistivity data. Solid blue block line is the modeled resistivity (synthetic resistivity). Horizontal axis is the current electrode spacing (AB/2) in meters and vertical axis is the resistivity in ohm meters.

Table 1

Cutoff values of resistivity for different lithologies used in interpretation of VES data

Formation resistivity (Ω.m)



Res < 20


Above water table

Res > 150

Sand-gravel and boulders

Above water table

20 > Res < 150

Sand-gravel and boulders

Below water table

Res < 20


Below water table

Res < 30


Below water table

Res < 10

Saline sediments

Fig. 6

Boreholes and modeled resistivity curves describing the calibration between lithology and resistivity data

The information provided in Table 1 has been used to analyze all the VES curves and developing layer models. Each model’s response curve represents the virtual VES response of a horizontally stratified earth using a limited number of sedimentary layers (3–5).The base layer in each model extends to undefined depth value. Every layer is characterized by electrical resistivity and a thickness value excluding the base layer whose thickness is not known. The subsurface electrical resistivity field is schematically pictured to some depth by the interpretation of resistivity models.

Surface topography of the area is shown in Fig. 7a and ground water table elevation map is shown in Fig. 7b. Resistivity of groundwater varies in the study area as shown in Fig. 7c. The resistivity of groundwater ranges between less than 10 Ω.m and greater than 20 Ω.m. For this study, groundwater with resistivity of 10 Ω.m or less is considered saline. Saline groundwater is found at shallow depths in northern side of the valley and extends to greater depths in southern side.
Fig. 7

a Digital elevation model. b Water table elevation. c Distribution of formation resistivity. d Distribution of electrical conductivity in study area

Results and discussion

An alluvial fill deposits with several meters thickness overlies the bedrock. The alluvial sediments consist of silt and sand with gravels and boulders of varying depths are found in boreholes that act as aquifers. The clay rich sediments due to the intrusion of salt contents are found in the northern part of the valley and are verified with the resistivity inversion results. The analysis of VES results was difficult in this part due to very low contrast of resistivity values between the shallow alluvial deposits and the bedrock shales. From the borehole data as shown in Fig. 4, sand and gravel sediments are more concentrated in the southeastern part of the valley and act as a good aquifer material for the fresh groundwater while the more clay in the north and northwest part act as a saline water aquifer.

As from the digital elevation map of the Karak Valley in Fig. 7a, the elevation is increasing from west to east so the streams flow is from east to west but on the southeastern side of the valley the flow is from south to northwest due to the topography and dip of subsurface rocks. The ground water level also varies from west to east in the valley and correlate with the digital elevation map. The water table is ≤ 10-m depth in the northwest side at borehole BH-2 and more than 30-m depth in the southeast side at borehole BH-7 as shown in Fig. 4. The water table elevation map is shown in Fig. 7b and is based on water table information derived from different borehole data (Malik and Jousma 1984). Electrical conductivity measurements were also recorded from open wells in the valley to ensure the saline and fresh water distribution in the valley. The electrical conductivity distribution map of the study area is shown in Fig. 7d.

The electrical resistivity data results show that the northwest part of the valley has very low resistivity values as compare to the southeastern side as shown in Fig. 8a–f. Ground water studies show that more concentration of clay rich material reduce the electric current to follow at more depth and this is also verify with the results of resistivity data in the northwest part of the valley where the depth of penetration in the VES results is very low. The high resistivity values (Res > 150 Ω.m) which are above the water table and near to the surface are associated with dry sand-gravel and boulders sediments whereas the high resistivity values (Res > 100 Ω.m) which are below the water table are associated with the bedrock. The bedrock lithology varies by alternating clay/ sandstone and shale layers at different depths in boreholes BH-5 and BH-6 as shown in Fig. 4. At some places, the bed rock resistivity value is below 100 Ω.m due to the saturation of ground water. The low resistivity values (Res < 20 Ω.m) above and below the water table are associated with clay to silty clay sediments. The resistivity values between 20 and 150 Ω.m are assigned to water saturated sand-gravel sediments which constitute the main aquifer in the area and are mostly on the southern side of the valley. The resistivity values Res < 10 Ω.m above and below the water table constitutes the saline sediments that is mostly on the northern side of the valley. Due to the salinity factor, the valley is divided into fresh and saline water aquifers.
Fig. 8:

a Resistivity distribution at 10-m depth with resistivity scale 0–600 Ω.m. b Resistivity distribution at 10-m depth with constrained scale 0–200 Ω.m. c Resistivity distribution at 30-m depth with scale 0–200 Ω.m. d Resistivity distribution at 50-m depth with scale 0–200 Ω.m. e Resistivity distribution at 100-m depth with scale 0–200 Ω.m. f Resistivity distribution at 150-m depth with scale 0–200 Ω.m

A number of resistivity maps are generated at different depth levels—above and below the water table—to observe the resistivity value variation in the valley and these maps are shown in Fig. 8a–f at 10-, 30-, 50-, 100-, and 150-m depths respectively. These depths levels are selected after carefully examine the resistivity data where the maximum variation in resistivity may exist. The resistivity map at 10-m depth level is above the water table in Fig. 8a–b. Figure 8a shows that the resistivity value ranges from less than 10 Ω.m to more than 500 Ω.m in the valley. Low resistivity value (< 10 Ω.m) at some places in the northern side shows the intrusion of saline water and water table is also very shallow but on the southern side of the valley especially in the southeast, the high resistivity value (> 500 Ω.m) depicts the deep water table. The high resistivity values above the water table near the surface show coarse sand-gravel sediments as well as boulders and can be correlated with the boreholes BH-6 and BH-7. Figure 8b shows the constrained resistivity map with ranges from 0 to 200 Ω.m. It can be seen very clearly from the map that almost whole valley shows high resistivity value (> 150 Ω.m) due to dry shallow sand-gravel sediments except only small zones where the resistivity area is less than 10 Ω.m due to the saline water content in that part of the valley.

The resistivity map at 30-m depth level is shown in Fig. 8c and is below the water table in most of the area on the north and northwest side except the area on the southeast where the water table is below 30-m depth and shows high resistivity value due to coarse sand-gravel sediments. The blue color areas where the resistivity value is below 20 Ω.m depict the clay-silty clay sediments and intrusion of saline water where the resistivity is below 10 Ω.m. Figure 8d–f shows the resistivity map of 50-, 100-, and 150-m depth levels and are below the water table. In these maps, the clay-silty clay and shale sediments at varying depths represent the low resistivity value below 10 Ω.m as can been seen near VES points 25, 40, and 41. Boreholes BH-3 and BH-2 lie near to these areas and can be correlated with low resistivity values. The very low resistivity values in blue color are interpreted as a saline water aquifer. The areas close to boreholes BH-5, BH-6, and BH-7 on these maps constitute mostly sand, gravel, and boulder sediments where the resistivity value lies between 20 and 150 Ω.m and these areas are interpreted as an aquifer of fresh water. The high resistivity values more than 50 Ω.m and below the water table at 100- and 150-m depth maps are interpreted the areas where the bedrock is uplifted.

By the resistivity analysis of this valley and knowing the direction of stream flows, we can depict that the saline water aquifer on the northern side of the valley is mostly due to dissolution of salt content from the Bahadurkhel Salt Formation during rainy season that is exposed on the northern side of the valley. Also, the main stream is flowing on the north side of the valley and connects to the Kurram River on the west side in Domail Plain of Bannu Basin.

The resistivity cross-section AA´ (Fig. 9) is made by the interpolation of resistivity data along the profile AA´. The interpreted results of the profile are shown as a generalized three-layer case in Fig. 9. The profile AA´ suggests that low and high resistivity values vary along the profile. Low resistivity values between VES points 29 and 28 depict the saline water is at very shallow depth. The bedrock is shallow on the eastern side in profile AA´. Three layers can be seen easily from the cross-section of AA´ profile. First layer is the dry sediments of sand-gravel and boulders and is above the water table that varies approximately from east to west side of the profile. Second layer depicts the aquifer of fresh water due to the coarse sediments of gravel, sand, and boulders on the east side of the profile while on the west side the fresh water aquifer has some low resistivity value that is mostly due to clay contents. Third layer is bedrock that constitutes the alternating sandstone with clay and shale layers on the eastern side and can be correlated with the boreholes BH-5 and BH-6. On the western side, the bedrock shale layer has very low resistivity value and holds the saline water. Due to low resistivity value (< 10 Ω.m), the zone of saline water is mapped and is shown in Fig. 9. The shallow saline water aquifer can be seen near VES points 23, 22, and 21. Water table is also very shallow at these points and is below 10-m depth as shown in Fig. 9. Figure 10 represents the 3D gridding of the whole resistivity data in the valley from 1- to 150-m depths that also show the same division of saline water on the northern side and fresh water aquifer on the southern side of the valley. After the detail analysis of water table, formation resistivity, electrical conductivity, VES results, and the different resistivity depth maps, the saline and fresh water aquifer boundary was mapped as shown in Fig. 11.
Fig. 9

Geologic cross-section AA´ constructed by calibrated resistivity and borehole data

Fig. 10

3D resistivity model of the study area from 1 to 150-m depth

Fig. 11

Interpreted map of the study area representing the water divide line between fresh and saline water aquifer


By comparing all the maps of electrical resistivity at different depths, formation resistivity, electrical conductivity, and 3D map of the area, it is concluded that there is a distribution of fresh and saline water aquifers in the valley.

The re-inversion and re-mapping of 1D electrical resistivity data acquired in the Karak Valley had mapped the boundary between fresh and saline water zones with considerable success. The available borehole data at different locations in the area were useful to map the near surface lithology and to calibrate the modeled resistivity curves. The formation resistivity value was computed at each resistivity point and calibrated with drilled boreholes lithologies. The generated 2D resistivity surface maps helped to explain the fresh and saline water zones at different depth levels. The presence of saline water aquifer with clay rich sediments was identified by very low resistivity values in the northern part. However, the presence of fresh groundwater was positively mapped by the relatively high resistivity values with sand and gravel sediments in the southeastern part of the valley.


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Copyright information

© Saudi Society for Geosciences 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of GeologyUniversity of the PunjabLahorePakistan
  2. 2.Department of Petroleum GeosciencesThe Petroleum InstituteAbu DhabiUnited Arab Emirates
  3. 3.Fugro Middle EastAbu DhabiUnited Arab Emirates

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