The calibration of hydrological models is often complex in regions with scarce data, and generally only uses site-based streamflow data. However, this approach will yield highly generalised values for all model parameters and hydrological processes. It is therefore necessary to obtain more spatially heterogeneous observation data (e.g., satellite-based evapotranspiration (ET)) to calibrate such hydrological models. Here, soil and water assessment tool (SWAT) models were built to evaluate the advantages of using ET data derived from the Global Land surface Evaporation Amsterdam Methodology (GLEAM) to calibrate the models for the Bayinhe River basin in northwest China, which is a typical data-scarce basin. The result revealed the following: (1) A great effort was required to calibrate the SWAT models for the study area to obtain an improved model performance. (2) The SWAT model performance for simulating the streamflow and water balance was reliable when calibrated with streamflow only, but this method of calibration grouped the hydrological processes together and caused an equifinality issue. (3) The combination of the streamflow and GLEAM-based ET data for calibrating the SWAT model improved the model performance for simulating the streamflow and water balance. However, the equifinality issue remained at the hydrologic response unit (HRU) level.
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