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SOIL MOISTURE OR SOIL WATER: MEANING, SOURCES AND OCCURRENCE

In a hypothetical medium-textured soil, moisture constitutes about 25% by volume;


the value is generally lower and higher in coarse- and fine-textured soils respectively, all
other factors remaining constant. Under natural field conditions, the soil is never devoid of
moisture, which exists as films of water at the peripheries of the solid phase. Soil moisture is
actually water in the soil; the only difference is that it is neither in its pure state nor in ponded
condition. As such, the terms ‘moisture’ and ‘water’ are regularly used interchangeably with
respect to the soil. Since water is a universal solvent, its dissolution of solutes in a mineral-
rich system like the soil is naturally inevitable. Therefore, the use of ‘soil water’ should be
with caution, to denote that which ordinarily has some solutes (mainly minerals) dissolved in
it, and which is not ponded in any occlusions in the soil. In other words, if not connoting the
soil moisture properties (such as movement and energy status) and its availability or
utilization by crop plants, the use of ‘moisture’ would be preferable.
Soil moisture is that constituent of the soil that makes it characteristically wet. It
represents the liquid phase component of the soil – as a three-phase (solid, liquid, and gas)
system. Sources of moisture to the soil include precipitation (especially rainfall, snowfall, and
throughfall), irrigation, and groundwater recharge. With rainfall, overland flow sometimes
occurs, depending on some characteristics of the rainfall, as well as on the topographic,
structural, and cover management features of the soil. This overland flow, termed runoff,
runoff does not enter the soil from where it emanates. If, however, the rainwater is
impounded in depressions or a reasonable proportion is trapped by some techniques geared
primarily towards conserving soil water, the ‘harvested’ runoff automatically becomes part of
the soil moisture, provided the soil physical conditions favour infiltration. Strictly speaking,
water lost to runoff never constitutes in soil moisture, since soil moisture refers to the water
already infiltrated into, and is part of, the soil. Runoff is, therefore, considered an important
avenue of loss of rainwater from surface of the soil. On the other hand, deep percolation is
another important avenue of unproductive loss of soil moisture, and is influenced mainly by
soil texture and climate, being more pronounced in sandy soils and in the wetter regions.
Based on the foregoing, it is more informative to talk of effective rather than total rainfall.
Effective rainfall is simply total rainfall less runoff and deep percolation.

Sunday E. Obalum
Department of Soil Science
University of Nigeria, Nsukka Nigeria