Hydrologists and ecologists studying tundra ecosystems have worked largely independently, with little cross-fertilization between disciplines. Their disciplines are, however, inextricably linked by a need to understand the dynamics and significance of the common substance water, in its liquid, solid and gaseous state within tundra environments. The impacts of predicted long-term changes in climate have particularly important consequences for the functioning of tundra systems and there is a pressing need to initiate studies that integrate hydrological and ecological methodologies and concepts. Our paper attempts to summarize existing information on the role of water within tundra ecosystems, to emphasize the fundamental links between the biotic and the physico/chemical environments and to suggest how a closer integration of ideas might be achieved. Given the breadth of the subject matter the paper is intended to be illustrative rather than comprehensive. The paper examines the physical impacts of water in its various states on the tundra environment, emphasizing in particular the causes of spatial variation in water availability to living organisms. The significance of water is discussed for a range of organism groups, including plants, invertebrates and microorganisms and its pivotal role in ecosystem function and disturbance stressed. The need to develop integrated hydological/ecological models for tundra systems on different spatial scales is emphasized.