In the US there are two kinds of water rights, one governed by property law (i.e., the water belongs to the owner of the land it is on) and one which sells rights to the water independent of property ownership, so that everyone with access to that water source is entitled to water rights no matter who actually owns the land. Use-based rights are granted by government permits. However, there is a ranking system whereby more senior users are entitled to first access to the water. It gets even more complicated, however, because some waterways fall under federal jurisdiction, and navigable waterways have their own special set of rules.
The laws on this vary from country to country, and really, there’s no globally-recognized answer to this legal question. This question has resulted in international tension between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria regarding who is entitled to how much water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iraq, which is downstream, has been suffering from a drought and has no way to legally force its northern neighbors to supply more water. This has also been an issue of contention between the US and Mexico, especially in times of drought.
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