Soil water repellency (SWR) is a widespread phenomenon that influences patterns of soil wetting, runoff, evapotranspiration and availability of water for plants. In natural ecosystems there is emerging evidence that some plants can take advantage of non-uniform wetting patterns, leading to the emergence of co-evolutionary behaviour. In this review, SWR is considered in terms of five spheres of influence. Given the presence of hydrophobic organic material in the biosphere, the strength, severity and persistence of SWR is influenced by properties at the surface of the lithosphere and prevailing conditions in the atmosphere and hydrosphere. These in turn, can be modified by activities in the anthroposphere. This review thus examines the strength, severity and persistence of non-wetting behaviour with reference to these five spheres of influence and also the interactions between the spheres. It is focused on (i) how SWR is characterised to provide insight into how different measurement techniques have specific operational ranges, (ii) how SWR has developed as an indirect consequence of evolution in natural ecosystems and (iii) how feedbacks across the different spheres have emerged. It demonstrates that management and restoration of natural ecosystems with water repellent soils is very different from management of productive crops in monocultural agricultural systems, controlled in the anthroposphere.