Quantitative assessment of surface water resources (SWRs) and evapotranspiration (ET) is essential and significant for reasonably planning and managing water resources in the Haihe River basin which is facing severe water shortage. In this study, a distributed hydrological model of the Haihe River basin was constructed using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool, well considering the reservoirs and agricultural management practices for reasonable simulation. The crop parameters were independently calibrated with the observed crop data at six experimental stations. Then, sensitivity ranks of hydrological parameters were analysed, which suggested the important parameters used for calibration. The model was successfully calibrated using the monthly observed data of discharge in around 1970–1991 and actual ET (ETa) in 2002–2004 for the mountainous area and Haihe plain, respectively. Meanwhile, good agreements between the simulated and statistical crop yields in 1985–2005 further verified the model's appropriateness. Finally, the calibrated model was used to assess SWRs and ETa in time and space during 1961–2005. Results showed that the average annual natural SWRs and the ETa were about 17.5 billion cubic metre and 542 mm, respectively, both with a slight downward trend. The spatial distributions of both SWRs and ETa were significantly impacted by variations of precipitation and land use. Moreover, the reservoir in operation was the main factor for the noticeable decline of actual SWRs. In the Haihe plain, the ETa with irrigation was increased by 46% compared with that under rainfed conditions. In addition, this study identified the regions with potential to improve the irrigation effects on water use. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.