Open Journal of Modern Hydrology, 2013, 3, 67-74 Published Online April 2013 (
Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation
of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins
Roberto Franco-Plata1, Carlos Miranda-Vázquez1, Héctor Solares-Hernández1,
Luis Ricardo Manzano-Solís1, Khalidou M. Bâ2, José L. Expósito-Castillo2
1Faculty of Geography, Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, Toluca, Mexico; 2Inter-American Center of Water Resources,
Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, Toluca, Mexico.
Received January 29th, 2013; revised March 1st, 2013; accepted March 11th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Roberto Franco-Plata et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
The physiographic characterization of a basin is a fundamental element as it defines the hydrological behavior of that
basin. The present work deals with the development and implementation of a tool that allows calculating in an auto-
mated manner the physiographic parameters of a basin, as well as those of the surface runoff and main river, besides
other graphic elements: hypsometric curve, equivalent rectangle and profile of the main river. Such a tool was devel-
oped under Visual Basic 6 programming language and the spatial geographic component ArcObjects by ESRI; they
enabled the development of a library as a final product (.dll), which can be loaded and implemented in ArcMap soft-
ware. In the methodology a Conceptual Model was established, from which it was possible to identify the requirements
and methods to obtain the parameters, as well as the conception and implementation of the Logical Model that includes
the specific functions and also the input structures, processes and data output. Finally, the tool was tested with actual
data from El Caracol river basin, located in central-southern Mexico, which showed the easiness and usefulness of it,
besides the effectiveness of the results, not leaving aside the time and resources saved by the user when characterizing a
basin, compared with other conventional processes.
Keywords: GIS Programming; ArcObjects; Visual Basic; Physiography of Basin
1. Introduction
Nowadays, obtaining parameters from a hydrographic
basin is generally performed manually, using printed
cartography and undertaking painstaking processes, and
the results are not always accurate, because precision
depends on the criterion of the one performing the tasks.
Therefore it was deemed necessary to develop a tool that
facilitates the obtainment of said parameters in a simple,
efficacious manner with good results in some of the
most-used Geographic Information System (GIS), this
under the premise that the implementation of the tool in
GIS will facilitate the capture, preparation of spatial data,
and later, the presentation and unfolding of results in an
efficacious manner. Moreover, the development of the
tool coupled to a GIS offers a powerful computing in-
strument for hydrologists.
The advancement in the study of hydrological aspects
from computing technologies has enabled the develop-
ment of GIS and hydrologic models to facilitate model-
ing in management and decision making about water
resources. There are diverse advancements as for the
development of applications for hydrological issues, this
has contributed to the continuous development of this
kind of tools together with GIS; but in spite of this, [1]
Franco-Plata (2008) and [2] Rodríguez and Santos (2007)
make it evident that there are few works oriented to ob-
tain basin parameters.
Among the works referring to the obtaining of physi-
ographic parameters from a basin distinguishable are
HecPrepro (Hydrologic Engineering Center-PREPRO-
cessor) and HecPrepro version 2.0 developed by [3]
Hellweger (1997). [4] Ehslchlager (1991) developed an
application in GRASS software, which generates infor-
mation similar to that from the application Arc Hec-Pre-
pro. [5] Díaz et al. (1999) used ArcInfo and ArcView 3.0
software to employ functions of analysis in the calcula-
tion of physiographic parameters. Arc-Hydro ([6] Maid-
ment, 2002) is a model of geospatial and temporary data
to manage and administrate hydrologic information sup-
ported on ArcGIS. [7] Franco-Plata (2006), implemented
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJMH
Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins
a geomatic module to extract the physiographic parame-
ters of a basin. [2] Rodríguez and Santos, (2007) retook
the above mentioned work making adjustments and in-
corporating some missing parameters, with the purpose
of making the module more efficacious on ArcView 3.2
platform. [1] Franco-Plata (2008) developed a hydro-
geomatic module in the raster platform of the GIS Idrisi
for the availability of water resources, it is worth under-
scoring that this application incorporated new hydro-
logical calculations such as evapotranspiration, infiltra-
tion and surface runoff, to mention a few, besides the
most indispensable physiographic calculations to charac-
terize hydrographic basins, from a DEM and the basin
As it is noticed, the evolution of the development of
various platforms for hydrological analysis has experi-
enced and created new concepts and ideas as for the
treatment of information, since it is a support to accom-
plish the unification of some methods and techniques to
evaluate hydrological issues.
2. Theoretical-Methodological Support
The reaction of a hydrological basin to precipitations is a
phenomenon not still fully grasped; the studies on several
components of the hydrological cycle and the relation-
ships between them, in particular the process of
rain-runoff, have been the object of many works ([8]
Chebani et al., 1992; [9] Llamas, 1993; [10] Ouarda et
al., 2008). Hydrologic analysis uses various statistical
methods to compare basins in views of evidencing the
causes for the variations of hydrologic characteristics.
For instance, it is sought to explain why two hydrologic
basins under the same climatic conditions may have run-
off regimes utterly different; physiographic characteris-
tics have a very important role in hydrologic processes.
Several techniques are nowadays used to relate the de-
sign flows to the physiographic characteristics. For in-
stance, [8] Cheibani et al. (1992) established an equation
that produces the flow for the return period for ten years
with the area of the basin, its mean slope and drainage
density. [11] Campos-Aranda (2008) related monthly
runoffs from several basins, their respective areas and
distances between hydrometric stations in order to trans-
fer the monthly runoffs of these basins to another for
which there is no hydrometric information. Separately,
[10] Ouarda et al. (2008) related the physiographic pa-
rameters of several sub-basins of Balsas, Lerma-Santiago
and Panuco Rivers with the quantiles of different return
Additionally, in hydrology there are many empirical
equations, either for the calculations of concentration
time of a basin or the determination of a design flow, all
of these formulas use one or more physiographic para-
meters. [1] Franco-Plata (2008) mentions that the physic-
ographic characteristics of a basin have a fundamental
role in the study and behavior in the components of the
hydrological cycle, therefore some parameters are re-
quired as input data in most hydrological models. Also, is
considered as watershed physiographic parameters (Ta-
ble 1) to that determined by initial data quantification,
which involves managing the relief models and hydro-
logical network deriving quantifiable characteristics of a
It is important to distinguish that numberless calcula-
tions can be obtained from a basin, but nonetheless this
research focused on the physiographic characterization of
a basin from its morphology, drainage and the character-
istics of the main river. The morphometric characteristics
of a hydrographic basin offer a physical description of
their extension and forms, thus enabling comparisons
between different hydrographic basins.
As for the technologies applied in the present study,
GIS have been defined in various forms ([12] Bernhard-
sen, 1999; [13] Bosque, 1997; [14] Burrough, 1986; [15]
Candeau, 2005; [16] DeMers, 2002), depending on the
Table 1. Main physiographic parameters of a basin, its
drainage and main stream ([1] franco-plata, 2008).
Basin Drainage Main river
Area Drainage density Length of main stream
Real surface Stream density Axial length
Perimeter Bifurcation ratio
Mean slope of the main
Centroid Strahler orders Maximum height
Factor of
Number of
segments by
Strahler order
Minimum height
Stream of
maximum order in
the basin
Difference between
maximum and minimum
addition of all
Main river profile
radius - -
relation - -
Mean height - -
Mean slope - -
mean relation- -
curve - -
rectangle - -
Time of
Concentration - -
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Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins 69
point of view of the author assumed in this field, when
comparing the definitions however, elements in common
appear: spatial information, spatial data, spatially refer-
enced data; all pinpoints at the spatial data as that which
differences GIS from other specialized databases, repre-
senting the center around which all the possible applica-
tions of GIS orbit; hence, spatial data contains, in its
most elemental concept, characteristics of localization (X,
Y) and sort of thematic characteristic (Z), on which rests
the base of all the operations possible to perform in a
Usually, the use of GIS applied to hydrological mod-
eling offers benefits in the representation and simulation
of problems that require interpretation and analysis of
spatial information ([17] Farías de Reyes and Reyes,
2001). [1] Franco-Plata (2008) mentions that GIS can
actuate as a platform to experiment new ideas and con-
cepts as for the processing of hydrological information,
as they become a valuable support to attain the systemic
integration of methods and techniques to carry out the
evaluation of water resources as for water availability,
from the natural water balance of a basin. Thus, the use
of GIS has had a great boom in the hydrological sphere
for the development of interfaces or applications of spa-
tial and temporary simulation.
3. Material and Method
In the present work, ArcGIS Desktop was used because
of the broad range of applications that can be generated
by means of resorting to the component of ArcObjects
with Visual Basic 6 (VB6), which allowed creating a
DLL (Dynamic Link Library) that can be integrated into
ArcGIS Desktop to carry out the calculation of the phy-
siographic parameters of a basin.
VB6 programming language is oriented to create pro-
grams for Windows, being able to incorporate all the
elements of this computing platform: windows, buttons,
dialog and text boxes, option or selection boxes, dis-
placement bars, graphics and menus, among other. Said
objects were utilized with the intention of providing the
tool with a better graphical appearance, since the proper-
ties and methods of these objects do not allow the devel-
oper the manipulation of geographical data or spatial
objects for they are solely oriented to develop pure com-
puting applications, thereby it was necessary to install the
spatial component ArcObjects, which enabled the use of
ESRI specific libraries, to manipulate the spatial objects
and so being able to calculate the physiographic parame-
ters of a basin. Then VB6 together with ArcObjects al-
lowed automating some of the most important tasks, such
as the selection of libraries, references, compilation and
registration, generator of line number, generator of errors
in code and the implementation of the tools that were
employed, and the most important was the generation of
a code that enabled the automation of all the processes to
produce the physiographic parameters, among other
It is important to mention that ArcObjects technology
uses and meets the regulations of the component object
model (COM) and using it allows developing new tools,
functions or creating work flows on ArcGIS. To fulfill
the stated objective, the project underwent the following
methodological stages proposed by [18] Franco et al.
(2012): requirement analysis, conceptual model, geo-
matic model and implementation.
3.1. Requirements Analysis
As previously indicated, the obtaining of physiographic
parameters of a basin provides the adequate bases to ac-
complish an assessment of the hydrologic resources in a
basin; such is the case referring to water availability.
Therefore, the development of the application was gli-
mpsed as one that will supply effectiveness and reper-
cussion in saving time and resources oriented to obtain
physiographic parameters, which would help hydrolo-
gists and all those specialists in water sciences, as for
decision making and planning, as well as for the inte-
grated management of these resources.
Moreover, noticeable was the necessity of having suf-
ficient knowledge on hydrology, physiographic parame-
ters, programming in Visual Basic 6 and ArcObjects in
views of materializing the GIS tool for the automated and
efficacious calculation of the physiographic parameters
of a basin; we dealt with these issues resorting to experts
in each of the indicated topics.
3.2. Conceptual Model
The conceptual model as a theoretical and strategic back-
bone of the project development allowed identifying the
different interactions between each of the processes and
parameters when obtaining the tool, with the aim of
choosing the methods to develop for each element on the
basis of the requirement analysis and information avail-
ability. In Figure 1, there is an instance of the conceptual
model, in which the set of processes necessary to gener-
ate the physiographic parameters considered in the re-
search is schematically represented; the inputs that will
feed the processes are identified. By the end of this stage,
the conceptual models to obtain the physiographic pa-
rameters, hypsometric curve, equivalent rectangle and
profile of the main river were produced.
3.3. Geomatic Model
The geomatic model is the representation of a conceptual
model, which indeed helps schematize and understand
the stages of solving a problem, yet from a geomatic en-
vironment and perspective, in which the spatial aspect is
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJMH
Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJMH
Figure 1. Example of a conceptual model.
Figure 2. Example of a geomatic model.
distinguished. For the general schematization flow dia-
grams were employed to represent the logical sequence
followed to solve each of the conceptual models stated in
the previous stage. In Figure 2, an instance of the geo-
Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins 71
matic models generated for the project is shown.
3.4. Implementation
From the geomatic model obtained in the previous sec
tion were selected the tools that allowed translating the
model into the computing language to perform the auto-
mated processes required by the application. It was con-
sidered that the user interface was of the utmost impor-
tance to familiarize the user with the application and its
elements, and thus make its adequate use and handling
The hydrogeomatic interface called “HidroCuenca”
was implemented in Visual Basic 6 with the ArcObjects
spatial geographic component, in such manner that it is
composed of 4 class modules, 22 modules with 65 scripts;
as for Help, FlashMx 2004 was used. Once the imple-
mentation was installed, the tool was incorporated in
ArcMap as a menu to amicably show the application
tools (Figure 3).
4. Results
The main window of the GIS tool (Figure 4 and Table 2)
Figure 3. Access through a menu to the impleme nte d tool.
Figure 4. User interface of the GIS tool, the explanation for
its components can be seen in Table 2.
shows the interface for the calculation of physiographic
parameters; likewise, the necessary objects that allow
processing input and output data are also displayed.
4.1. Application to a Case Study
In order to prove the functionality of the new generated
GIS tool, an application exercise to El Caracol sub-basin
in Mexico was made; this basin is found within that of
Balsas River, which on its own belongs to the 18th Hy-
drological Region established by the program of Priority
Hydrological Regions of the National Commission for
the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (ComisiónNa-
cional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad,
CONABIO) of the Federal Government. The study zone
is located between the geographic coordinates
19˚42'04.39''N, 17˚04'04.84''N, and 99˚38'11.51''W,
97˚38'11.51''W (Figure 5).
To evaluate the physiographic parameters of the river
basin three files were utilized; two in vector format (hy-
drological network and basin polygon) and one in raster
format (DEM) (Figure 6). In this point is important to
underline the exposed by [19] Pineda et al. (2012) when
they said that it is very important to use data of good
quality because results depend of these data. To carry out
the automated calculation, the user must start in the “Hi-
droCuenca” menu and click on “Cálculo de parámetros
fisiográficos” to open the window shown in Figure 7,
which is where the aforementioned files are entered.
Once the layers have been entered, is necessary to
capture in the tool the name that will be assigned to the
results and the folder in which these data will be stored;
this in the “Salidas” (Outputs) section (shown in the “in-
terface window” in Figure 7). Once the input and output
have been indicated, by clicking on “Procesar” (To proc-
ess) button so that the tool starts calculating the physi-
ographic parameters of the basin under study and the
results are unfolded: hypsometric curve (Figure 8); equi-
valent rectangle (Figure 9); Strahler drainage order (Fig-
ure 10); main river (Figure 11); and the longitudinal
profile of the main river (Figure 12).
Likewise, the tool generates attribute tables associated
to the results; these are the attributes with the physico-
graphic parameters of the basin, those of the main river,
and the attributes of the drainage network (Figure 13).
In views of having a means to compare and validate
the obtained results, the same parameters were produced
in the ordinary manner, in an exercise carried out manu
ally from printed maps from the National Institute of
Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadís-
tica y Geografía, INEGI). The results obtained from both
procedures are shown in Table 3.
A comparative analysis of the values shown in the
previous table allows verifying that processes carried out
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJMH
Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJMH
Figure 5. Localization of El Caracol river basin.
Table 2. Explanation of the user interface components of the GIS tool to calculate the physiographic parameters of a basin
(Figure 4).
Letter Object Function
A ComboBox List of shapefile and layer files (polylines).
B ComboBox List of shapefile and layer files (polygons).
C ComboBox List of files grid, raster dataset (DEM).
D Button (CommandButton) Shows a textbox to enter data and establish an exit path.
E Button (CommandButton) Terminates the application.
F Text box (TextBox) Space established for the user to assign a word (letters or numbers) so that
they identify their information, after being processed.
G Text box (TextBox) Specifies the storing path of the final files.
H Button (CommandButton) Executes the program to obtain the physiographic parameters of the basin.
I Movie (ShockwaveFlash) Area that shows the hydrographic model in a flash file.
J Button (CommandButton) Calls the help system of the application.
K Movie (ShockwaveFlash)
Displays the name of the institutions that developed the project and the
name of the authors.
Figure 7. Window to enter the necessary data to calculate
the physiographic parameter s of a basin.
Figure 6. Necessary input layers for the GIS tool.
Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins 73
Table 3. Comparison of the physiographic parameters of El
Caracol river basin, obtained from two ways of working out
the data: ordinary and using the GIS tool.
Parameter Ordinary fashion Automated version
Surface 49671.17 km2 49671.174 km2
Perimeter 1399.33 km 1399.327 km
Mean slope 0.018 9.3
coefficient 1.758 1.759
Elongation ratio 0.92 0.428
relation 2.25 2.5
Drainage density 0.354 km/km2 0.35 km/km2
density 0.035 km2 0.05 km2
Maximum length of
all streams 17606.06 km 17605.901 km
Mean slope of the
main river 0.004 0.004
Maximum height 5500 masl 5500 masl
Minimum height 400 masl 400 masl
Figure 8. Graph of the hypsometric curve.
Figure 9. Equivalent rectangle of El Caracol river basin.
Figure 10. Determination of Strahler drainage order for El
Caracol river basin, the maximum order was six.
Figure 11. Determination of main river from the input
drainage network.
Figure 12. Longitudinal profile of the main river.
Figure 13. Attribute tables with the main parameters.
in the GIS tool were correct, whose processing time
lasted for about two hours.
5. Conclusions
The method employed in the research allowed designing
and implementing a GIS tool for the calculation of the
physiographic parameters of a basin; by means of apply-
ing said tool, it was possible to corroborate and mainly
verify the saving of time and resources compared with
other systems devoted to the obtaining of parameters.
Even if it is true that the results may vary in a negligible
way with other commercial systems utilized to obtain
physiographic parameters, this can be due to the differ-
ence between the applied formulas or method. When
comparing the obtained values with others generated by
means of different frameworks, they reflect the useful-
ness of HidroCuenca tool and its application in a GIS
platform and in projects in which the hydrological analy-
sis of basins is necessary.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJMH
Implementing into GIS a Tool to Automate the Calculation of Physiographic Parameters of River Basins
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJMH
Although the development of applications in the hy-
drological sphere has been developing in a significant
manner, it is worth distinguishing that the numbers of
commissioned applications to calculate physiographic
parameters are very few; therefore, the present work
represents an important and innovative effort to calculate
said parameters for a basin. The implementation of the
developed GIS tool automated and simplified diverse
tasks as for the calculation of physiographic parameters
(to name a few: Strahler orders, direction of the flow of
rivers, obtaining of main river, hypsometric curve, equi-
valent rectangle, profile of main river, etc.), thus pre-
venting the users from using time resorting to other spa-
tial analysis modules to obtain said parameters, instead a
single interface is offered for this task in a simple, effica-
cious and automated manner.
In the international, national and regional spheres the
topic of basin management becomes more important by
the day; not only is it the interest and concern of the ac-
tors and those directly involved: communities, local or-
ganizations, municipalities, national institutions, etc., but
also of donor and cooperating organizations. It is in-
tended, due to this reason, to use information and geo-
graphic technologies to develop automated products that
facilitate decision making for better water management.
Finally, it is important to underscore that in the pres-
ence of poor-quality input data, the interface does not
guarantee the correct acquisition of physiographic pa-
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