Most of the water from the Nile originates in Ethiopia but there is no agreement on how land degradation or climate change affects the future flow in downstream countries. The objective of this paper is to improve the understanding of future conditions by analysing historical trends. During the period 1964–2003, the average monthly basin-wide precipitation and monthly discharge data were collected and analysed statistically for two stations in the upper 30% of the Blue Nile Basin and monthly and 10-day discharge data of one station at the Sudan–Ethiopia border. A rainfall–runoff model examined the causes for observed trends. The results show that, while there was no significant trend in the seasonal and annual basin-wide average rainfall, significant increases in discharge during the long rainy season (June to September) were observed at all three stations. In the upper Blue Nile, the short rainy season flow (March to May) increased, while the dry season flow (October to February) stayed the same. At the Sudan border, the dry season flow decreased significantly with no change in the short rainy season flow. The difference in response was likely due to the construction of weir in the 1990s at the Lake Tana outlet that affected the upper Blue Nile discharge significantly but affected less than 10% of the discharge at the Sudan border. The rainfall–runoff model reproduced the observed trends, assuming that an additional 10% of the hillsides were eroded in the 40-year time span and generated overland flow instead of interflow and base flow. Models concerning future trends in the Nile cannot assume that the landscape runoff processes will remain static. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.