In the Sahel, there are few long‐term data series available to estimate the climatic and anthropogenic impacts on runoff in small catchments. Since 1950, land clearing has enhanced runoff. The question is whether and by how much this anthropogenic effect offsets the current drought. To answer this question, a physically based distributed hydrological model was used to simulate runoff in a small Sahelian catchment in Niger, from the 1950–1998 rain‐series. The simulation was carried out for three soil surface states of the catchment (1950, 1975 and 1992). The catchment is characterized by an increase in cultivated land, with associated fallow, from 6% in 1950 to 56% in 1992, together with an increase in the extent of eroded land (from 7 to 16%), at the expense of the savanna. Effects of climate and land use are first analysed separately: irrespective of the land cover state, the simulated mean annual runoff decreases by about 40% from the wet period (1950–1969) to the dry period (1970–1998); calculated on the 1950–1998 rainfall‐series, the changes that occurred in land cover between 1950 and 1992 multiplies the mean annual runoff by a factor close to three. The analysis of a joint climatic and anthropogenic change shows that the transition from a wet period under a ‘natural’ land cover (1950) to a dry period under a cultivated land cover (1992) results in an increase in runoff of the order of 30 to 70%. At the scale of a small Sahelian catchment, the anthropogenic impact on runoff is probably more important than that of drought. This figure for relative increase in runoff contributions to ponds, preferential sites of seepage to groundwater, is less than that currently estimated for aquifer recharge, which has been causing a significant continuous water table rise over the same period. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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