In this paper, a smoothed particle hydrodynamics (SPH) numerical model for the shallow water equations (SWEs) with bed slope source term balancing is presented. The solution of the SWEs using SPH is attractive being a conservative, mesh-free, automatically adaptive method without special treatment for wet-dry interfaces. Recently, the capability of the SPH–SWEs numerical scheme with shock capturing and general boundary conditions has been used for predicting practical flooding problems. The balance between the bed slope source term and fluxes in shallow water models is desirable for reliable simulations of flooding over bathymetries where discontinuities are present and has received some attention in the framework of Finite Volume Eulerian models. The imbalance because of the source term resulting from the calculation of the the water depth is eradicated by means of a corrected mass, which is able to remove the error introduced by a bottom discontinuity. Two different discretizations of the momentum equation are presented herein: the first one is based on the variational formulation of the SWEs in order to obtain a fully conservative formulation, whereas the second one is obtained using a non-conservative form of the free-surface elevation gradient. In both formulations, a variable smoothing length is considered. Results are presented demonstrating the corrections preserve still water in the vicinity of either 1D or 2D bed discontinuities and provide close agreement with 1D analytical solutions for rapidly varying flows over step changes in the bed. The method is finally applied to 2D dam break flow over a square obstacle where the balanced formulation improves the agreement with experimental measurements of the free surface. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.