Man-made Reservoirs

Man-made reservoirs, sometimes called artificial lakes, are important water sources in many countries around the world. In contrast to natural processes of lake formation, reservoirs are artificial, usually formed by constructing a dam across a river or by diverting a part of the river flow and storing the water in a reservoir. Upon completion of the dam, the river pools behind the dam and fills the artificially created basin (UNEP 2000). Seasonal changes of runoff and precipitation feed the reservoir. There are big differences in the size of man-made reservoirs such as big artificial lakes or small pond-like waterbodies. The stored water can be used for irrigation, drinking water after purification, or to produce energy.


On-stream storage reservoir formed by a dam across a valley and its water cycle

A reservoir is an artificial lake called a man-made reservoir. It can be formed by building a dam across a valley, by excavating the land, or by surrounding a piece of land with dykes and diverting a part of the river flow into the reservoir. The water is stored in the reservoir and can be used for irrigationhydro-power, or as a water source for domestic or industrial use. Man-made reservoirs are also very effective constructions to control unexpected floods (see also stormwater management). A reservoir is fed by precipitation, rainwater runoff, or a constant flow of a river. Water loss can occur due to evaporation (especially in arid regions) and depending on the reservoir bottom due to percolation (small reservoirs are often linked). Sediments from rivers or surface runoff can reduce the storage volume of a man-made reservoir significantly (FAO 1992).

Water stored in a valley usually has a higher level than the valley bottom downstream of the dam. Because of this difference in level, the valley can be irrigated by a gravity system or other distribution systems. Water can be taken from the reservoir via a concrete or steel pipe. This pipe connects the reservoir to an irrigation canal downstream. A valve is usually located on the upstream end of the pipe to control the discharge of water into the canal (FAO 1992). The kinetic energy of reservoirs is often used to produce electricity (see also hydropower small-scale and hydropower large-scale).

Ecological Impacts

Where no such water body previously existed the presence of a reservoir in a drainage basin and the abstraction of significant water amounts for storage upstream significantly impacts the watercourse, the flora and fauna, and the human inhabitants in the drainage basin. These potential impacts should be identified and thoroughly examined prior to reservoir construction, in order to comprehensively assess the total value of the reservoir project. Procedures to identify and properly evaluate potential environmental, social, and economic consequences of reservoir construction involve the so-called ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ (EIA). Such an assessment is now obligatory by law in many countries for all new dam constructions (UNEP 2000).

Ecological impacts of reservoir dams have been reported from various aspects such as barrier for migratory animals like anadromous fish, eutrophication of reservoirs by plankton blooming, decreasing flow volumes in tailwaters, stabilization of flow regimes by flood peak cut, changes in thermal regimes of river water, river bed degradation and increase in substrate grain size by sediment trapping, etc. (TAKEMON 2006). Furthermore, big dams and the extraction of water (e.g. for spate irrigation) can create riparian conflicts (see water conflicts). Also, read the paragraph “Impact on Environment” in the rivers factsheet.

Comparison of the riverbed landscape between upstream and downstream reaches of the Yasugawa Dam in the Yasu River in central Japan. The dam is as old as 53 years and the distinctive riverbed armouring can be observed. White part of rocks indicates thick accumulation of organic matter originated from the reservoir
Comparison of the riverbed landscape between upstream and downstream reaches of the Yasugawa Dam in the Yasu River in central Japan. The dam is as old as 53 years and the distinctive riverbed armoring can be observed. The white part of rocks indicates a thick accumulation of organic matter originated from the reservoir. Source: TAKEMON (2006) 

Basic Design Principles

Factsheet Block Body

Adapted from UNEP (2000)

Different types of reservoir systems.
Different types of reservoir systems. Source: UNEP (2000) 

Like lakes, reservoirs range in size from pond-like to very large water bodies (e.g. Lake Powell, U.S.A.). The variations in type and shape, however, are much greater than for lakes. The term ‘reservoir’ includes several types of constructed water bodies and/or water storage facilities:

  • Valley reservoirs – created by constructing a barrier (dam) perpendicular to a flowing river.
  • Off-river storage reservoirs – created by constructing an enclosure parallel to a river, and subsequently supplying it with water either by gravity or by pumping from the river.

The latter reservoirs are sometimes called embankment or bounded reservoirs and have controlled inflows and outflows to and from one or more rivers. In addition to single reservoirs, reservoir systems also exist and include cascade reservoirs – consisting of a series of reservoirs constructed along a single river, and inter-basin transfer schemes – designed to move water through a series of reservoirs, tunnels, and/or canals from one drainage basin to another.

Pumping from a Reservoir for Irrigation

Adapted from FAO (1992)

A small reservoir in the hills of Tepoztlán (Morelos, Mexico), which is mainly filled by precipitation catchment. The water is extracted by gravity and is protected by a fence to avoid contamination from animals or unauthorised use. The reservoir is sealed with an impermeable liner
A small reservoir in the hills of Tepoztlán (Morelos, Mexico), which is mainly filled by precipitation catchment. The water is extracted by gravity and is protected by a fence to avoid contamination from animals or unauthorized use. The reservoir is sealed with an impermeable liner. Source: STAUFFER (2009) 

The fields located around the reservoir upstream of a dam or surrounding a natural lake are higher than the reservoir or lake’s water table. Here irrigation is only possible with the help of pumping stationsmanual or motorized pumping.

The water level in the reservoir is usually highest at the end of the rainy season, and lowest at the end of the dry season or the irrigation season. Pumps installed at reservoirs and lakes must be able to handle these fluctuations, which are not only vertical but even more pronounced horizontally because the water recedes back to the lowest parts of the reservoir. A dead branch of a river can also be made to function as a reservoir. The branch is filled with water during the wet season and closed off during the dry season so that the stored water may be used. Due to the low water level, pumps are normally needed to irrigate fields from such a reservoir.


Factsheet Block Body

Especially for large reservoirs costs are high. It must be designed by engineers and heavy machinery is necessary. Furthermore, costs for material as well as O&M should be considered. If it is constructed for a hydropower water source costs are even higher because much more technical equipment, as well as operation and maintenance, is needed.

Operation and Maintenance

Factsheet Block Body

Because reservoirs are man-made water bodies, they are more amenable to artificial operation and regulation than lakes. As previously noted, operational possibilities unique to reservoirs include the ability to discharge known volumes of water at predetermined times, and selective discharge of water from different water layers within the reservoir. This must be planned carefully as it directly impacts the environment as described above. Also, read the document “Reservoir Operations and Managed Flows” (WMO and GWP 2008).

Dams, especially the very large ones, must be checked regularly to ensure their stability and security. Furthermore, many man-made water reservoirs are affected by high sedimentation rates. The accumulation of sediments in the reservoir reduces the main reservoir asset i.e. its volume capacity. Moreover, sediments can negatively affect pumping and hydropower equipment. Therefore the designers should consider soil erosion and sediment transport (CHANSON and JAMES 1998). There are several approaches to minimize or deal with sedimentation.

When a reservoir serves different functions it is nearly impossible to operate each function at its maximum level. For example, a reservoir that provides irrigation, power generation (see small scale and large scale hydropower), flood control, and recreational use may cause conflicting demands by its users (WATERENCYCLOPEDIA 2011).

Health Aspects

Factsheet Block Body

Faecal pollution and other contamination of reservoirs have to be prevented by wastewater treatment and buffer zones in case of non-point sources of pollution (see also the factsheets on lakes or water sources and well protection). If the reservoir is also used as a source of drinking water, please also check water purification as a measure to protect human health.

It should also be considered, that surface water sources can lead to mosquito breeding. Applicability

Water from a reservoir as a surface water source is applicable for use for irrigation in agriculture, households, or processing in industries. Depending on the size of the reservoir, impacts (ecological, riparian) must be considered to avoid contamination, damage to the environment or user conflicts.