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A drainage basin is an extent of land where water from rain or snow melt drains downhill into a body of water, such as a river, lake, reservoir, estuary, wetland, sea or ocean. The drainage basin includes both the streams and rivers that convey the water as well as the land surfaces from which water drains into those channels, and is separated from adjacent basins by a drainage divide.

The drainage basin acts like a funnel, collecting all the water within the area covered by the basin and channelling it into a waterway. Each drainage basin is separated topographically from adjacent basins by a geographical barrier such as a ridge, hill or mountain, which is known as a water divide.

Other terms that are used to describe a drainage basin are catchment, catchment area, catchment basin, drainage area, river basin, water basin and watershed. In the technical sense, a watershed refers to a divide that separates one drainage area from another drainage area. However, in the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker, the term is often used to mean a drainage basin or catchment area itself. Drainage basins drain into other drainage basins in a hierarchical pattern, with smaller sub-drainage basins combining into larger drainage basins.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency launched the website Watershed Central for the US public to exchange information and locate resources needed to restore local drainage basins in that country.

Major drainage basins of the world


Drainage basins of the principal oceans and seas of the world. Grey areas are endorheic basins that do not drain to the ocean.

Ocean basins

There are numerous drainage basins throughout the world in all sorts of places. The following is a list of some of the major ones:

Largest river basins

The three largest river basins (by area), from largest to smallest, are the Amazon basin, the Congomarker basin, and the Mississippi basin. The three rivers that drain the most water, from most to least, are the Amazon, Congomarker, and Gangesmarker Rivers.

Endorheic drainage basins

Endorheic drainage basins are inland basins that do not drain into an ocean; around 18% of all land drains to endorheic lakes or seas. The largest of these consists of much of the interior of Asia, and drains into the Caspian Seamarker and the Aral Seamarker. Other basins include the Great Basin in the United Statesmarker, much of the Sahara Desert, the watershed of the Okavango Rivermarker (Kalahari Basin), highlands near the African Great Lakesmarker, the interiors of Australia and the Arabian Peninsula, and parts in Mexicomarker and the Andes.

In endorheic bodies of standing water where evaporation is the primary means of water loss, the water is typically more saline than the oceans. An extreme example is the Dead Seamarker.

Importance of drainage basins

Geopolitical boundaries

Drainage basins have been historically important for determining territorial boundaries, particularly in regions where trade by water has been important. For example, the Englishmarker crown gave the Hudson's Bay Company a monopoly on the fur trade in the entire Hudson Baymarker watershed, an area called Rupert's Land. Today, bioregional democracy can include agreements of states in a particular drainage basin to defend it. One example of this is the Great Lakes Commission.


In hydrology, the drainage basin is a logical unit of focus for studying the movement of water within the hydrological cycle, because the majority of water that discharges from the basin outlet originated as precipitation falling on the basin. A portion of the water that enters the groundwater system beneath the drainage basin may flow towards the outlet of another drainage basin because groundwater flow directions do not always match those of their overlying drainage network. Measurement of the discharge of water from a basin may be made by a stream gauge located at the basin's outlet.

Rain gauge data is used to measure total precipitation over a drainage basin, and there are different ways to interpret that data. If the gauges are many and evenly distributed over an area of uniform precipitation, using the arithmetic mean method will give good results. In the Thiessen polygon method, the watershed is divided into polygons with the rain gauge in the middle of each polygon assumed to be representative for the rainfall on the area of land included in its polygon. These polygons are made by drawing lines between gauges, then making perpendicular bisectors of those lines form the polygons. The isohyetal method involves contours of equal precipitation are drawn over the gauges on a map. Calculating the area between these curves and adding up the volume of water is time consuming.


Drainage basins are the principal hydrologic unit considered in fluvial geomorphology. A drainage basin is the source for water and sediment that moves through the river system and reshapes the channel.


Drainage basins are important elements to consider also in ecology. As water flows over the ground and along rivers it can pick up nutrients, sediment, and pollutants. Like the water, they get transported towards the outlet of the basin, and can affect the ecological processes along the way as well as in the receiving water source.

Modern usage of artificial fertilizers, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, has affected the mouths of watersheds. The minerals will be carried by the watershed to the mouth and accumulate there, disturbing the natural mineral balance. This can cause eutrophication where plant growth is accelerated by the additional material.

Resource management

Because drainage basins are coherent entities in a hydrological sense, it has become common to manage water resources on the basis of individual basins. In the U.S. state of Minnesotamarker, governmental entities that perform this function are called watershed districts. In New Zealand, they are called catchment boards. Comparable community groups based in Ontario, Canada, are called conservation authorities. In North America this function is referred to as watershed management.In Brazilmarker, the National Policy of Water Resources, regulated by Act n° 9.433 of 1997, establishes the drainage basin as territorial division of Brazilian water management.

Catchment factors

The catchment is the most significant factor determining the amount or likelihood of flooding.

Catchment factors are: topography, shape, size, soil type and land use (paved or roofed areas). Catchment topography and shape determine the time taken for rain to reach the river, Catchment size, soil type and development determine the amount of water to reach the river.


Topography determines the speed with which the runoff will reach a river. Clearly rain that falls in steep mountainous areas will reach the river faster than flat or gently sloping areas.


Shape will contribute to the speed with which the runoff reaches a river. A long thin catchment will take longer to drain than a circular catchment.


Size will help determine the amount of water reaching the river, as the larger the catchment the greater the potential for flooding.

Soil type

Soil type will help determine how much water reaches the river. Certain soil types such as sandy soils are very free draining and rainfall on sandy soil is likely to be absorbed by the ground. However, soils containing clay can be almost impermeable and therefore rainfall on clay soils will run off and contribute to flood volumes. After prolonged rainfall even free draining soils can become saturated, meaning that any further rainfall will reach the river rather than being absorbed by the ground.

Land use

Land use can contribute to the volume of water reaching the river, in a similar way to clay soils. For example, rainfall on roofs, pavement and roads will be collected by rivers with almost no absorption into the groundwater.

See also


  1. Encarta Encyclopedia articles on Amazon River, Congo River, and Ganges Published by Microsoft in computers.


  • DeBarry,Paul A. (2004). Watersheds: Processes, Assessment and Management. John Wiley & Sons.

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