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Catchments in many parts of the world are either ungauged or poorly gauged, and the dominant processes governing their streamflow response are still poorly understood. The analysis of runoff coefficients provides essential insight into catchment response, particularly if both range of catchments and a range of events are compared. This paper investigates how well the hydrological runoff of 11 small, poorly gauged catchments with ephemeral streams (0·1-0·6 km2) can be compared using estimated runoff with the associated uncertainty. Data of rainfall and water depth at a catchment's outlet were recorded using automatic logging equipment during 2008-2009. The hydrological regime is intermittent and the annual precipitation ranged between 569 and 727 mm. Discharge was estimated using Manning's equation and channel cross-section measurements. Innovative work has been performed under controlled experimental conditions to estimate Manning's coefficient values for the different cover types observed in studied streams: non-aquatic vegetations (giant reed, bramble and thistle), grass and coarse granular deposits. The results show that estimates derived using roughness coefficients differ from those previously established for larger streams with aquatic vegetation. Catchment runoff was compared at both the event and the annual scale. The results indicate significant variability between the catchment's responses. This variability allows for classification in spite of all the uncertainty associated with runoff estimation. This study highlights the potential of using a network of poorly gauged catch ments. From almost no catchment understanding the proposed methodology allows to compare poorly gauged catchments and highlights similarity/dissimilarity between catchment responses. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.