The mesoscale Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) model is gaining popularity among the hydrometeorological community in providing high-resolution rainfall forecasts at the catchment scale. Although the performance of the model has been verified in capturing the physical processes of severe storm events, the modelling accuracy is negatively affected by significant errors in the initial conditions used to drive the model. Several meteorological investigations have shown that the assimilation of real-time observations, especially the radar data can help improve the accuracy of the rainfall predictions given by mesoscale NWP models. The aim of this study is to investigate the effect of data assimilation for hydrological applications at the catchment scale. Radar reflectivity together with surface and upper-air meteorological observations is assimilated into the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model using the three-dimensional variational data-assimilation technique. Improvement of the rainfall accumulation and its temporal variation after data assimilation is examined for four storm events in the Brue catchment (135.2 km2) located in southwest England. The storm events are selected with different rainfall distributions in space and time. It is found that the rainfall improvement is most obvious for the events with one-dimensional evenness in either space or time. The effect of data assimilation is even more significant in the innermost domain which has the finest spatial resolution. However, for the events with two-dimensional unevenness of rainfall, i.e. the rainfall is concentrated in a small area and in a short time period, the effect of data assimilation is not ideal. WRF fails in capturing the whole process of the highly convective storm with densely concentrated rainfall in a small area and a short time period. A shortened assimilation time interval together with more efficient utilisation of the weather radar data might help improve the effectiveness of data assimilation in such cases. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.