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Illustration of a drainage basin. The dashed line is the main water divide of the hydrographic basin.
Illustration of a drainage basin. The dashed line is the main water divide of the hydrographic basin.

A drainage basin is any area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet, such as into a river, bay, or other body of water. The drainage basin includes all the surface water from rain runoff, snowmelt, and nearby streams that run downslope towards the shared outlet, as well as the groundwater underneath the earth's surface.[1] Drainage basins connect into other drainage basins at lower elevations in a hierarchical pattern, with smaller sub-drainage basins, which in turn drain into another common outlet.[2]

Other terms used interchangeably with drainage basin are catchment area, catchment basin, drainage area, river basin, water basin,[3] and impluvium.[4][5][6] In North America, the term watershed is commonly used to mean a drainage basin, though in other English-speaking countries, it is used only in its original sense, that of a drainage divide.

In a closed drainage basin, or endorheic basin, the water converges to a single point inside the basin, known as a sink, which may be a permanent lake, a dry lake, or a point where surface water is lost underground.[7]

The drainage basin acts as a funnel by collecting all the water within the area covered by the basin and channelling it to a single point. Each drainage basin is separated topographically from adjacent basins by a perimeter, the drainage divide, making up a succession of higher geographical features (such as a ridge, hill or mountains) forming a barrier.

Drainage basins are similar but not identical to hydrologic units, which are drainage areas delineated so as to nest into a multi-level hierarchical drainage system. Hydrologic units are defined to allow multiple inlets, outlets, or sinks. In a strict sense, all drainage basins are hydrologic units but not all hydrologic units are drainage basins.[7]

Major drainage basins of the world

The following is a list of the major ocean basins:

The five largest river basins (by area), from largest to smallest, are the basins of the Amazon (7M km2), the Congo (4M km2), the Nile (3.4M km2), the Río de la Plata (3.2M km2), and the Mississippi (3M km2). The three rivers that drain the most water, from most to least, are the Amazon, Ganga, and Congo rivers.[8]

Endorheic drainage basins are inland basins that do not drain to an ocean. Around 18% of all land drains to endorheic lakes or seas or sinks. The largest of these consists of much of the interior of Asia, which drains into the Caspian Sea, the Aral Sea, and numerous smaller lakes. Other endorheic regions include the Great Basin in the United States, much of the Sahara Desert, the drainage basin of the Okavango River (Kalahari Basin), highlands near the African Great Lakes, the interiors of Australia and the Arabian Peninsula, and parts in Mexico and the Andes. Some of these, such as the Great Basin, are not single drainage basins but collections of separate, adjacent closed basins.

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 of this is the Dead Sea.


Drainage basins have been historically important for determining territorial boundaries, particularly in regions where trade by water has been important.

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.

Isochrone maps can be used to show the time taken for runoff water within a drainage basin to reach a lake, reservoir or outlet, assuming constant and uniform effective rainfall.[9][10][11][12]

Drainage basins are the principal hydrologic unit considered in fluvial geomorphology. A drainage basin is the source for water and sediment that moves from higher elevation through the river system to lower elevations as they reshape the channel forms.

Drainage basins are important in ecology. As water flows over the ground and along rivers it can pick up nutrients, sediment, and pollutants. With the water, they are 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 use of artificial fertilizers, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, has affected the mouths of drainage basins.

Because drainage basins are coherent entities in a hydro-logical sense, it has become common to manage water resources on the basis of individual basins.

When a river basin crosses at least one political border, either a border within a nation or an international boundary, it is identified as a transboundary river. Management of such basins becomes the responsibility of the countries sharing it. Nile Basin Initiative, OMVS for Senegal River, Mekong River Commission are a few examples of arrangements involving management of shared river basins.

Management of shared drainage basins is also seen as a way to build lasting peaceful relationships among countries.[13]

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, while catchment size, soil type, and development determine the amount of water to reach the river.

Generally, topography plays a big part in how fast runoff will reach a river.

Shape will contribute to the speed with which the runoff reaches a river.

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

Soil type will help determine how much water reaches the river.

Land use can contribute to the volume of water reaching the river, in a similar way to clay soils.

See also

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