Development of accurate classification methods for rapidly changing catchments like that of Lake Basaka is fundamental to better understanding the catchment dynamics, which were not addressed in previous studies. Thus, the aim of this study was to map the decadal land use/cover (LUC) regimes of the Lake Basaka catchment, utilizing time series of LANDSAT images and to analyse the changes that occurred at different time periods. Both unsupervised and supervised image classification systems were utilized in Earth Resources Data Analysis System (ERDAS) Imagine (9.1). Appropriate pre- and postprocessing also was utilized. Seven major LUC classes were identified in the final land cover maps produced after the supervised (maximum likelihood) classification exercise. The analysis results indicated the Lake Basaka catchment had experienced a drastic change in its LUC conditions over the last 4–5 decades because of rapid increases in human settlement, deforestation, establishment of irrigation schemes and Awash National Park (ANP). Approximately 18 924 ha of forest and 4730 ha of grazing lands were devastated between 1973 and 2008. At the same time, there was a shift in land cover from forests/woodlands to open woodlands, shrub and grazing lands. The land cover classifications generally were achieved at a very high overall accuracy (84.34%) and overall kappa statistics (0.802), substantiating the value of using the classified LUC in this study as an input to hydrological models. This study results provide an opportunity to better understand and quantify the hydrological response regimes of the lake catchment from the perspective of changing LUC conditions during different hydrological periods and the resulting dynamics of the lake water balance.