The river continuum concept represents the most general framework addressing the spatial variation of both structure and function in river ecosystems. In the Mediterranean ecoregion, summer drought events and dams constitute the main sources of local disturbance to the structure and functioning of river ecosystems occurring in the river basin. In this study, we analysed patterns of spatial variation of detritus processing in a 7th order river of the Mediterranean ecoregion (River Tirso, Sardinia-Italy) and in three 4th order sub-basins which were exposed to different summer drought pressures. The study was carried out on Phragmites australis and Alnus glutinosa leaf detritus at 31 field sites in seasonal field experiment. Detritus processing rates were higher for Alnus glutinosa than for Phragmites australis plant detritus. Processing rates of Alnus glutinosa leaves varied among seasons and study sites from 0.006 d(-1) to 0.189 d(-1) and those of Phragmites australis leaves ranged from 0.0008 d(-1) to 0.102 d(-1), with the lowest values occurring at sites exposed to summer drought. Seasons and sites accounted for a significant proportion of such variability. Alder detritus decay rates generally decreased with increasing stream order, while reed detritus decay rates generally increased on the same spatial gradient. Summer drought events affected these spatial patterns of variation by influencing significantly the decay rates of both plant detritus. The comparisons among and within sub-basins showed strong negative influence of summer drought on detritus processing rates. Similarly, in the entire River Tirso basin decay rates were always lower at disturbed than at undisturbed sites for each stream order; decay rates of reed detritus remained lower at those sites even after the end of the disturbance events, while alder decay rates recovered rapidly from the summer drought perturbations. The different recovery of the processing rates of the two leaves could also explain the different patterns of spatial variation observed between the two leaves.