The lack of data and suitable methods to quantify regional hydrological processes often hinders sustainable water management and adaptation to climate change in semiarid regions, particularly in the Sahel, which is known for its climatic variability. Here we show that 36Cl from nuclear tests is a promising method to estimate water transit times and groundwater recharge rates on the catchment scale, and to distinguish water and chloride cycles. 36Cl was measured in 131 surface and groundwater samples in the Chari-Logone sub-catchment of the emblematic Lake Chad Basin, located in central Sahel. It was found that only 12 ± 8% of the catchment is connected to the main rivers. Groundwater supporting rivers in the upper humid part of the catchment has a mean transit time of 9.5 ± 1 years and a recharge rate of 240 ± 170 mm yr-1. In the lower Sahelian part of the catchment, stream-focused recharge yields recharge rates up to 78 ± 7 mm yr-1 in riparian groundwater against 16 ± 27 mm yr-1 elsewhere. Our estimates suggest that aquifers in the Sahel host a significant amount of renewable water, which could therefore be used as a strategic freshwater resource.