Climate change and land use/cover change (LUCC) are two factors that produce major impacts on hydrological processes. Understanding and quantifying their respective influence is of great importance for water resources management and socioeconomic activities as well as policy and planning for sustainable development. In this study, the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) was calibrated and validated in upper stream of the Heihe River in Northwest China. The reliability of the SWAT model was corroborated in terms of the Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency (NSE), the correlation coefficient (R), and the relative bias error (BIAS). The findings proposed a new method employing statistical separation procedures using a physically based modeling system for identifying the individual impacts of climate change and LUCC on hydrology processes, in particular on the aspects of runoff and evapotranspiration (ET).
The results confirmed that SWAT was a powerful and accurate model for diagnosis of a key challenge facing the Heihe River Basin. The model assessment metrics, NSE, R, and BIAS, in the data were 0.91%, 0.95%, and 1.14%, respectively, for the calibration period and 0.90%, 0.96%, and −0.15%, respectively, for the validation period. An assessment of climate change possibility showed that precipitation, runoff, and air temperature exhibited upward trends with a rate of 15.7 mm, 6.1 mm, and 0.38 °C per decade for the 1980 to 2010 period, respectively. Evaluation of LUCC showed that the changes in growth of vegetation, including forestland, grassland, and the shrub area have increased gradually while the barren area has decreased. The integrated effects of LUCC and climate change increased runoff and ET values by 3.2% and 6.6% of the total runoff and ET, respectively. Climate change outweighed the impact of LUCC, thus showing respective increases in runoff and ET of about 107.3% and 81.2% of the total changes. The LUCC influence appeared to be modest by comparison and showed about −7.3% and 18.8% changes relative to the totals, respectively. The increase in runoff caused by climate change factors is more than the offsetting decreases resulting from LUCC. The outcomes of this study show that the climate factors accounted for the notable effects more significantly than LUCC on hydrological processes in the upper stream of the Heihe River.