Managing water resources to provide subsistence in arid and semiarid areas has been a challenge to indigenous societies for thousands of years. Kinship systems often were, and are, the organizational backbone of indigenous social groups. Detailed ethnographies of social groups practicing irrigation were reviewed to determine the interaction between water management and kinship systems in each. Results indicate that these systems were closely linked in kinship-oriented societies. Impressive stores of knowledge about water management were retained intergenerationally through functions of and roles within kinship systems. These functions and roles were responsive to and, in some cases, evolved from requirements of the physical system. Water supply was frequently the limiting resource in arid and semiarid areas. Where engineering choices existed, water management strategies could be adapted to existing kinship structures. Where no choices existed, kinship structures were forced to adapt to water management or fail. The link between water management and kinship systems has implications for modern development efforts in arid and semiarid areas. Development should proceed cautiously over long time periods so kinship systems have time to adapt and environmental impacts can be monitored. Drastically altering either kinship structures or water management strategies in balanced systems adversely affects subsistence-level survival in harsh environments.