Reliable quantification of groundwater recharge rate is crucial for the sustainable utilization of groundwater resources. However, little information is documented about the uncertainty associated with recharge rate estimation from the different combinations of model complexity and objective function perspectives. Therefore, this study aims to (i) analyze the sensitivity of the model parameters under different combinations of model complexities and objective functions and (ii) estimate the groundwater recharge rate in the Hombele catchment, Upper Awash Basin, Ethiopia, for different combinations of objective functions and model complexities. The effect of these model complexities in estimating groundwater recharge rate and parametrizing model parameters was quantified for the period 1986–2013. A total of 10 combinations of model complexities and objective functions were used for the analysis. The Kling–Gupta efficiency (Nash–Sutcliffe efficiency) values for calibration, validation, and the whole period are 0.89 (0.80), 0.80 (0.73), and 0.87 (0.77), respectively, when a semi-distributed HBV-light model was used. For all objective functions, we found that the average annual recharge rate of the study catchment ranges from 185.9 to 280.5 mm when the HBV-light model was considered as a semi-distributed model. In contrast, the average annual recharge rate ranges from 185.3 to 321.7 mm when applying the HBV-light model as a lumped model.

  • Groundwater recharge rate estimation was performed using lumped and semi-distributed, conceptual hydrological HBV-light models in the upper Awash subbasin.

  • Assessment model objective functions and model complexities have a significant impact on the sensitivity of the HBV-light model parameters and objective functions.

  • Groundwater recharge rate was evaluated using five objective functions and five evaluation matrices.

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