Quantitative evaluation of the effect of climate variability and human activities on runoff is of great importance for water resources planning and management in terms of maintaining the ecosystem integrity and sustaining the society development. In this paper, hydro-climatic data from four catchments (i.e. Luanhe River catchment, Chaohe River catchment, Hutuo River catchment and Zhanghe River catchment) in the Haihe River basin from 1957 to 2000 were used to quantitatively attribute the hydrological response (i.e. runoff) to climate change and human activities separately. To separate the attributes, the temporal trends of annual precipitation, potential evapotranspiration (PET) and runoff during 1957–2000 were first explored by the Mann–Kendall test. Despite that only Hutuo River catchment was dominated by a significant negative trend in annual precipitation, all four catchments presented significant negative trend in annual runoff varying from −0.859 (Chaohe River) to −1.996 mm a−1 (Zhanghe River). Change points in 1977 and 1979 are detected by precipitation–runoff double cumulative curves method and Pettitt's test for Zhanghe River and the other three rivers, respectively, and are adopted to divide data set into two study periods as the pre-change period and post-change period. Three methods including hydrological model method, hydrological sensitivity analysis method and climate elasticity method were calibrated with the hydro-climatic data during the pre-change period. Then, hydrological runoff response to climate variability and human activities was quantitatively evaluated with the help of the three methods and based on the assumption that climate and human activities are the only drivers for streamflow and are independent of each other. Similar estimates of anthropogenic and climatic effects on runoff for catchments considered can be obtained from the three methods. We found that human activities were the main driving factors for the decline in annual runoff in Luanhe River catchment, Chaohe River catchment and Zhanghe River catchment, accounting for over 50% of runoff reduction. However, climate variability should be responsible for the decrease in annual runoff in the Hutuo River catchment. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.