Water resources in dryland areas are often provided by numerous surface reservoirs. As a basis for securing future water supply, the dynamics of reservoir systems need to be simulated for large river basins, accounting for environmental change and an increasing water demand. For the State of Ceará in semiarid Northeast Brazil, with several thousands of reservoirs, a simple deterministic water balance model is presented. Within a cascade-type approach, the reservoirs are grouped into six classes according to storage capacity, rules for flow routing between reservoirs of different size are defined, and water withdrawal and return flow due to human water use is accounted for. While large uncertainties in model applications exist, particularly in terms of reservoir operation rules, model validation against observed reservoir storage volumes shows that the approach is a reasonable simplification to assess surface water availability in large river basins. The results demonstrate the large impact of reservoir storage on downstream flow and stress the need for a coupled simulation of runoff generation, network redistribution and water use.