Water quality refers to the chemical, physical, biological, and radiological characteristics of water. It is a measure of the condition of water relative to the requirements of one or more biotic species and or to any human need or purpose. It is most frequently used by reference to a set of standards against which compliance can be assessed. The most common standards used to assess water quality relate to health of ecosystems, safety of human contact and drinking water.

In the setting of standards, agencies make political and technical/scientific decisions about how the water will be used. In the case of natural water bodies, they also make some reasonable estimate of pristine conditions. Different uses raise different concerns and therefore different standards are considered. Natural water bodies will vary in response to environmental conditions. Environmental scientists work to understand how these systems function, which in turn helps to identify the sources and fates of contaminants. Environmental lawyers and policymakers work to define legislation with the intention that water is maintained at an appropriate quality for its identified use.

The vast majority of surface water on the planet is neither potable nor toxic. This remains true when seawater in the oceans (which is too salty to drink) is not counted. Another general perception of water quality is that of a simple property that tells whether water is polluted or not. In fact, water quality is a complex subject, in part because water is a complex medium intrinsically tied to the ecology of the Earth. Industrial and commercial activities (e.g. manufacturing, mining, construction, transport) are a major cause of water pollution as are runoff from agricultural areas, urban runoff and discharge of treated and untreated sewage.

Inevitably after events such as earthquakes and tsunamis, there is an immediate response by the aid agencies as relief operations get underway to try and restore basic infrastructure and provide the basic fundamental items that are necessary for survival and subsequent recovery. Access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation is a priority at times like this. The threat of disease increases hugely due to the large numbers of people living close together, often in squalid conditions, and without proper sanitation.