In This Article Water Availability

  • Introduction
  • Hydrologic Models
  • Drought
  • Water Scarcity
  • Increasing Water Availability
  • Selection of Textbooks and Meetings

Environmental Science Water Availability
Kate Brauman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0036


Water availability is a broad topic, encompassing the biophysical supply of water, the demand for water, and access to water. Water cycles through the earth system, precipitating from the atmosphere and becoming available as surface water and groundwater. The papers in the initial sections define water fluxes and storage and describe methods for quantifying them. Most analyses of water availability rely on hydrologic models, so included is a standalone section devoted to papers discussing the ways in which models differ and what they are most useful for. Models are useful for quantification and prediction, but the water cycle is variable. Drought describes periods when water availability is limited, and papers in this section define and identify drought in a variety of ways. Unpredictability and changes in water availability will increase in an era of global change. The effects of land-use change and of changing climate are explored both conceptually and through quantitative modeling. The preceding sections address the presence of water, but presence does not guarantee availability. The following sections address water availability. To state that water is available implies that it is available for ecosystems and human societies to use. The section on water use addresses sources of water and demand for water in agriculture, in households and industry, and for nature. The physical presence of water also does not ensure that it is available to those who need it. Water accessibility is related to physical factors such as infrastructure and also to the political context of governance. When demand for water is unmet, people experience water scarcity. Water scarcity can be quantified in a variety of ways, and potential solutions to scarcity are often a function of how it is defined. Even though there are many elements to water availability, it is clear that it cannot be understood without an integrated, interdisciplinary assessment of both biophysical and social factors.

General Overviews

These books, articles, and reports provide an introduction to water and overviews of water resource issues. Each tackles issues of water availability from a different perspective, although all integrate biophysical and social considerations to at least some extent. All are accessible to nontechnical audiences. Anisfeld 2010 provides the broadest overview, providing accessible but technical background information on many of the same topics that appear in this bibliography. Fishman 2011 takes a more populist approach, highlighting a variety of water issues through stories of water management, often when it has gone awry. Calder 2005 is much more practical, addressing water resources management and arguing for explicit integration with land management. Hoekstra 2013 is a survey of the ways water is used in the production of the products essential to our lives. Though agriculture is by far the largest human consumer of water, the availability of drinking water is immediately pertinent to many of us. Salzman 2012 explores the history and current state of drinking water. Gleick 2001 is a magazine article summarizing many of the challenges to water sustainability. The final paper in this section, United Nations 2003, focuses on water use and discusses the development of many widely used water availability indicators. Water quality affects the usability, and thus the effective availability, of water. However, for reasons of clarity and brevity, this article largely avoids directly addressing water quality. Schwarzenbach, et al. 2010 is included here to provide an overview of sources of water pollution and impacts to human health.

  • Anisfeld, S. C. 2010. Water Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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    Focused around the idea of a looming water crisis that stems from scarcity, pollution, and flooding. Includes one chapter on technologies for managing water. Addresses a variety of uses, including human health, but primarily focuses on biophysical fluxes and impacts.

  • Calder, I. R. 2005. Blue revolution: Integrated land and water resource management, Second edition. London: Earthscan.

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    Introduces the idea of fully integrated land-water management. Includes an accessible but technical review of land-water interactions, largely to address myths about forests and water. Introduces many policies and ideas about water management, focusing on the developing world, water conflicts, and tools for water management.

  • Fishman, C. 2011. The big thirst: The secret life and turbulent future of water. New York: Free Press.

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    Discusses the way stories and narratives about water shape the way we use and manage it. Full of engaging stories and facts about water, concluding that water problems are quite different in different places and require unique solutions.

  • Gleick, P. H. 2001. Safeguarding our water-making every drop count. Scientific American 284.2: 40–45.

    DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0201-40E-mail Citation »

    An accessible, broad, and brief introduction to the challenges of achieving water sustainability. Touches on everything from water shortages to the impacts of dams to water treatment facilities.

  • Hoekstra, A. Y. 2013. The water footprint of modern consumer society. London: Earthscan.

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    A nontechnical though well-supported discussion of the water used to produce the food and products used and traded globally. Summarizes the findings of a large number of peer-reviewed articles produced by the Water Footprint Network.

  • Salzman, J. 2012. Drinking water: A history. New York: Overlook Duckworth.

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    An engaging history of how water had been managed for drinking, who owns it, and how decisions about it are made. Explores a range of issues, from water treatment plants to how bottled water became a widely available commodity.

  • Schwarzenbach, R. P., T. Egli, T. B. Hofstetter, U. von Gunten, and B. Wehrli. 2010. Global Water Pollution and Human Health. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 35.1: 109–136.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-environ-100809-125342E-mail Citation »

    Provides an overview of different types of water pollutants, addressing both chemical pollutants and pathogens. Discusses common sources of pollutants as well as health impacts associated with them.

  • United Nations. 2003. Water for people, water for life: The United Nations world water development report. Barcelona: United Nations World Water Assessment Programme.

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    Provides an accessible and thorough overview of global water, including useful statistics and good images. Originally developed to contextualize the Millennium Development Goals meant to be achieved by 2015, so this is somewhat dated. The included background on water indicator development and history of governance is perennial.

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