Impacts of land use and climate change on runoff were investigated by studying the runoff in the Yarlung Zangbo River basin, China. Trends in precipitation, mean air temperature, and runoff were analysed by non-parametric Mann-Kendall tests. Land-use changes were examined with land-use transition matrix and geographic information system tools. Land-use and climate changes showed several characteristics, including increased reforestation, decreased grassland, retreat of glaciers and increased desertification. Human activity caused great impact, especially within densely populated regions and cities. Reforestation and degradation of grasslands were more frequent than deforestation and cultivation of grasslands. Annual mean air temperature, precipitation and runoff showed increasing trends between 1974 and 2000. The impacts of land use and climate change on runoff had different effects depending on region and season. In the season of freezing, climate change clearly affected runoff within regions that experienced precipitation. Altered evapotranspiration accounted for about 80 per cent of runoff changes, whereas land-use changes appear to have had greatest impact on runoff changes within regions that have inconsistent relationships between runoff and climate change. It was demonstrated that afforestation leads to increased runoff in dry seasons. It was estimated that glacier snow melt has caused annual runoff to increase at least 6·0 mm/10yr, 2·1 mm/10yr and 1·7 mm/10yr in Regions 1, 3 and 4, respectively, whereas evapotranspiration caused annual runoff to decrease at least 7·4 mm/10yr in Region 2. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.