Water resources are sources of water that are useful or potentially useful to humans. It is important because it is needed for life to exist. Many uses of water include agricultural, industrial, household, recreational and environmental activities. Virtually all of these human uses require fresh water. Only 3% of water on the Earth is fresh water, and over two thirds of this is frozen in glaciers and polar region ice caps. Water demand already exceeds supply in many parts of the world, and many more areas are expected to experience this imbalance in the near future. The framework for allocating water resources to water users (where such a framework exists) is known as water rights.

Conflicts over water use[]

Especially in arid regions conflicts exist over water use. Conflict is managed by regulation of water use by water law and regulations and water management by public and private entities. When specific disputes arise indidividual or entities may engage in negotiation or even litigation sometimes in specialized water courts.

Sources of fresh water[]

Surface water[]


A lake

Surface water is water in a river, lake or wetland. Surface water is naturally replenished by precipitation and naturally lost through runoff to the oceans, evaporation and seepage.

Although the only natural input to any surface water system is precipitation within its watershed, the total quantity of water in that system at any given time is also dependent on many other factors. These factors include storage capacity in lakes, wetlands and artificial reservoirs, the permeability of the soil beneath these storage bodies, the runoff characteristics of the land in the watershed, the timing of the precipitation and local evaporation rates. All of these factors also affect the proportions of water lost through discharge to the oceans, evaporation and seepage.

Human activities can have a large impact on these factors. Humans often increase storage capacity by constructing reservoirs and decrease it by draining wetlands. Humans often increase runoff quantities and velocities by paving areas and channelizing stream flow.

The total quantity of water available at any given time is an important consideration. Some human water users have an intermittent need for water. For example, many farms require large quantities of water in the spring, and no water at all in the winter. To supply such a farm with water, a surface water system may require a large storage capacity to collect water throughout the year and release it in a short period of time. Other users have a continuous need for water, such as a power plant that requires water for cooling. To supply such a power plant with water, a surface water system only needs enough storage capacity to fill in when average stream flow is below the power plant's need.

Nevertheless, over the long term the average rate of precipitation within an watershed is the upper bound for average consumption of natural surface water from that watershed.

Natural surface water can be augmented by importing surface water from another watershed through a canal or pipeline. It can also be artificially augmented from any of the other sources listed here, however in practice the quantities are negligible. Humans can also cause surface water to be "lost" (i.e. become unusable) through pollution.

Sub-surface water[]

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Sub-Surface water travel time

Sub-Surface water, or groundwater, is fresh water located in the pore space of soil and rocks. It is also water that is flowing within aquifers below the water table. Sometimes it is useful to make a distinction between sub-surface water that is closely associated with surface water and deep sub-surface water in an aquifer (sometimes called "fossil water").

Sub-surface water can be thought of in the same terms as surface water: inputs, outputs and storage. The critical difference is that for sub-surface water, storage is generally much larger compared to recharge than it is for surface water. This difference makes it easy for humans to use sub-surface water unsustainably for a long time without severe consequences. Nevertheless, over the long term the average rate of seepage above a sub-surface water source is the upper bound for average consumption of water from that source.

The natural input to sub-surface water is seepage from surface water. The natural outputs from sub-surface water are springs and seepage to the oceans.

If the surface water source is also subject to substantial evaporation, a sub-surface water source may become saline. This situation can occur naturally under endorheic bodies of water, or artificially under irrigated farmland. In coastal areas, human use of a sub-surface water source may cause the direction of seepage to ocean to reverse which can also cause salinization. Humans can also cause sub-surface water to be "lost" (i.e. become unusable) through pollution. Humans can increase the input to a sub-surface water source by building reservoirs or detention ponds.

Water in the ground are in sections called aquifers. Rain rolls down and comes into these. Normally an aquifer is near to the equilibrium in its water content. The water content of an aquifier normally depends on the grain sizes. This means that the rate of extraction may be limited by poor permeability.


Desalination is an artificial process by which saline water (generally ocean water) is converted to fresh water. The most common desalinization processes are distillation and reverse osmosis. Desalinization is currently very expensive compared to most alternative sources of water, and only a very small fraction of total human use is satisfied by desalination. It is only economically practical for high-valued uses (such as household and industrial uses) in arid regions. The most extensive use is in the Persian Gulf.

Frozen water[]


An iceberg as seen from Newfoundland

Several schemes have been proposed to make use of icebergs as a water source, however to date this has only been done for novelty purposes. Glacier runoff is considered to be surface water.

Threats to fresh water[]

There are many things that are a threat to the Earths fresh water supply. Here are a few of them.

Climate change[]

Climate change will have significant impacts on water resources around the world because of the close connections between the climate and hydrologic cycle. Rising temperatures will increase evaporation and lead to increases in precipitation, though there will be regional variations in rainfall. Both drought and floods may become more frequent in different regions at different times, and dramatic changes in snowfall and snowmelt are expected in mountainous areas. Higher temperatures will also affect water quality in ways that are not well understood. Possible impacts include increased eutrophication. Climate change could also mean an increase in demand for farm irrigation, garden sprinklers, and perhaps even swimming pools.

Depletion of aquifers[]

Since competition for water is growing, underground aquifers are becoming depleted. This is mainly due to irrigation by groundwater. Millions of small pumps are currently taking water out of aquifers to irrigate crops. Irrigation in dry areas such as India is supplied by groundwater.

Pollution and water protection[]

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Polluted Water

Water pollution is one of the many concerns of the world today. World governments have strived to find solutions to eliminate this problem. One of these suggestions is the Kyoto Protocol. Many programs strive to protect our water resources. They are usually funded by donations from generous people.

Uses of fresh water[]

Uses of fresh water can be categorized as consumptive and non-consumptive (sometimes called "renewable"). A use of water is consumptive if that water is not immediately available for another use. Losses to seepage and evaporation are considered consumptive, as is water incorporated into a product (such as farm produce). Water that can be treated and returned as surface water, such as sewage, is generally considered non-consumptive if that water can be put to additional use.

Agricultural use of water[]

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A farm in Ontario

It is estimated that 70% of world-wide water use is for irrigation. In some areas of the world irrigation is necessary to grow any crop at all, in other areas it permits more profitable crops to be grown or enhances crop yield. Various irrigation methods involve different trade-offs between crop yield, water consumption and capital cost of equipment and structures. Commonly used irrigation methods such as flood and sprinkler irrigation are also some of the most inefficient irrigation methods. This is because much of the water evaporates and runs off. A very efficient irrigation method is drip or trickle irrigation, which minimizes runoff and evaporation. Another trade-off that is often insufficiently considered is salinization of sub-surface water.

Aquaculture is a small but growing agricultural use of water. Freshwater commercial fisheries may also be considered as agricultural uses of water, but have generally been assigned a lower priority than irrigation (see Aral Sea and Pyramid Lake).

As global populations grow, and as demand for food increases in a world with a fixed water supply, there are efforts underway to learn how to produce more food with less water, through improvements in irrigation methods and technologies, agricultural water management, crop types, and water monitoring.

Industrial use of water[]

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A power plant in Poland

It is estimated that 15% of world-wide water use is industrial. Major industrial users include power plants, which use water for cooling or as a power source (i.e. hydroelectric plants), ore and oil refineries, which use water in chemical processes, and manufacturing plants, which use water as a solvent.

The portion of industrial water usage that is consumptive varies widely, but as a whole is lower than agricultural use.

Domestic use of water[]

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Drinking water

It is estimated that 15% of world-wide water use is for household purposes. These include drinking water, bathing, cooking, sanitation, and gardening. Basic household water requirements [1] have been estimated by Peter Gleick at around 50 liters per person per day, excluding water for gardens.

Most household water is treated and returned to surface water systems, with the exception of water used for landscapes. Household water use is therefore less consumptive than agricultural or industrial uses.

===Recreational use of water .===


Whitewater rapids

Water has a lot of recreational value.

Recreational water use is a very small but growing percentage of total water use. Recreational water use is mostly tied to reservoirs. If a reservoir is kept fuller than it would otherwise be for recreation, then the water retained could be categorized as recreational usage. Release of water from a few reservoirs is also timed to enhance whitewater boating, which also could be considered a recreational usage. Other examples are anglers, water skiers, nature enthusiasts and swimmers.

Recreational usage is non-consumptive. However it may reduce the availability of water for other users at specific times and places. For example, water retained in a reservoir to allow boating in the late summer is not available to farmers during the spring planting season. Water released for whitewater rafting may not be available for hydroelectric generation during the time of peak electrical demand.

Environmental use of water[]

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A natural wetland

Explicit environmental water use is also a very small but growing percentage of total water use. Environmental water usage includes artificial wetlands, artificial lakes intended to create wildlife habitat, fish ladders around dams, and water releases from reservoirs timed to help fish spawn.

Like recreational usage, environmental usage is non-consumptive but may reduce the availability of water for other users at specific times and places. For example, water release from a reservoir to help fish spawn may not be available to farms upstream.

World water, supply and distribution[]


Projected water distribution in 2025

Food and water are two basic human needs. As the picture shows, in 2025, water shortages will be more prevalent among poorer countries where resources are limited and population growth is rapid, such as the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia. By 2025, large urban and peri-urban areas will require new infrastructure to provide safe water and adequate sanitation. This suggests growing conflicts with agricultural water users, who currently consume the majority of the water used by humans.


See also[]