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 sub-surface 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.


It is estimated that 69 percent of worldwide water use is for irrigation, with 15-35 percent of irrigation withdrawals being unsustainable.

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. Irrigation methods such as furrow and overhead sprinkler irrigation are usually less expensive but are also typically less efficient, because much of the water evaporates, runs off or drains below the root zone. Other irrigation methods considered to be more efficient include drip or trickle irrigation, surge irrigation, and some types of sprinkler systems where the sprinklers are operated near ground level. These types of systems, while more expensive, usually offer greater potential to minimize runoff, drainage and evaporation. Any system that is improperly managed can be wasteful; all methods have the potential for high efficiencies under suitable conditions, appropriate irrigation timing and management. One issue that is often insufficiently considered is salinisation 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.

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.


It is estimated that 8 percent of worldwide water use is for household purposes. These include drinking water, bathing, cooking, sanitation, and gardening. Basic household water requirements have been estimated by Peter Gleick at around 50 litters per person per day, excluding water for gardens. Drinking water is water that is of sufficiently high quality so that it can be consumed or used without risk of immediate or long term harm. Such water is commonly called potable water. In most developed countries, the water supplied to households, commerce and industry is all of drinking water standard even though only a very small proportion is actually consumed or used in food preparation.