Understanding the basic runoff processes in the Ethiopian highlands is vital for effective management and utilization of water resources and soil conservation planning. An important question for judging the effectiveness of conservation practices is whether runoff is affected by ecology (mainly type of crop) or topography (landscape). A study was conducted in the 113 ha watershed of Maybar, located in the highlands. This watershed has long-term records of rainfall and discharge. To study runoff processes, piezometers were installed in eight transects up and down the slope. In addition, infiltration rates (measured earlier) were compared with rainfall intensities. The results show that the amount of runoff at the test plots was greater for cropland located on mild to intermediate slopes than for grasslands and woodlands on the steeper slopes. Water tables were closer to the surface on cropland for the mild to intermediate slopes than on grasslands and in woodlands for the steeper slopes. Thus, although water table depths and plot runoff were inconclusive on the type of runoff mechanisms, infiltration rates that were generally in excess of the rainfall rates imply that any ecological effect on the amount of surface runoff is small. This is because water infiltration is independent of crop type. Only in cases where the soil was saturated did runoff occur. Piezometer readings show that saturation occurs at the foot of the steep slopes and, therefore, it demonstrates that topographic processes are dominant. Ecology becomes important when infiltration rates are in the same order as the rainfall intensities. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.