In arid zones, many active aeolian dunes terminate at ephemeral and perennial desert rivers. The desert rivers show very high rates of sediment transport that cause deleterious downstream effects on the river system and ecology. High sediment loading has been attributed to severe water erosion of sparsely covered watersheds during infrequent but heavy rainfall. Although aeolian erosion is known to lead to high rates of wind-blown sand transport, direct confirmation of whether the aeolian processes accelerate or inhibit fluvial sediment loss is lacking. Here, we show that an aeolian-fluvial cycling process is responsible for the high rate of suspended sediment transport in a Sudalaer ephemeral desert channel in the Ordos Plateau of China. Frequent aeolian processes, but low frequency (once every 3 years on average) flooding, occur in this region. Wind-blown saltating grains appeared to be unable to cross the desert channel because of interruption of channel-induced recirculating air flow, and therefore tended to settle in the channel during the windy seasons, leading to channel narrowing. During flooding, this narrowed channel was found to yield a threefold increase in suspended sediment loading and a 3.4-fold increase in the weight percentage of the 0.08–0.2 mm sediment fraction on 18 July 2012. Loss of stored aeolian sand due to channel erosion accounted for about half of the total sediment yield in this watershed. These findings show that aeolian processes play an essential role in accelerating the sediment yield from a watershed characterized by aeolian-fluvial interplay and also suggest that the drier the region and the greater the aeolian process, the more the aeolian process contributes to fluvial sediment yield. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.