In this paper and in part II, we give the theory of a distinctive type of wave motion, which arises in any one-dimensional flow problem when there is an approximate functional relation at each point between the flow q (quantity passing a given point in unit time) and concentration k (quantity per unit distance). The wave property then follows directly from the equation of continuity satisfied by q and k. In view of this, these waves are described as 'kinematic', as distinct from the classical wave motions, which depend also on Newton's second law of motion and are therefore called 'dynamic'. Kinematic waves travel with the velocity partial q/partial k, and the flow q remains constant on each kinematic wave. Since the velocity of propagation of each wave depends upon the value of q carried by it, successive waves may coalesce to form 'kinematic shock waves'. From the point of view of kinematic wave theory, there is a discontinuous increase in q at a shock, but in reality a shock wave is a relatively narrow region in which (owing to the rapid increase of q) terms neglected by the flow-concentration relation become important. The general properties of kinematic waves and shock waves are discussed in detail in section 1. One example included in section 1 is the interpretation of the group-velocity phenomenon in a dispersive medium as a particular case of the kinematic wave phenomenon. The remainder of part I is devoted to a detailed treatment of flood movement in long rivers, a problem in which kinematic waves play the leading role although dynamic waves (in this case, the long gravity waves) also appear. First (section 2), we consider the variety of factors which can influence the approximate flow-concentration relation, and survey the various formulae which have been used in attempts to describe it. Then follows a more mathematical section (section 3) in which the role of the dynamic waves is clarified. From the full equations of motion for an idealized problem it is shown that at the 'Froude numbers' appropriate to flood waves, the dynamic waves are rapidly attenuated and the main disturbance is carried downstream by the kinematic waves; some account is then given of the behaviour of the flow at higher Froude numbers. Also in section 3, the full equations of motion are used to investigate the structure of the kinematic shock; for this problem, the shock is the 'monoclinal flood wave' which is well known in the literature of this subject. The final sections (section section 4 and 5) contain the application of the theory of kinematic waves to the determination of flood movement. In section 4 it is shown how the waves (including shock waves) travelling downstream from an observation point may be deduced from a knowledge of the variation with time of the flow at the observation point; this section then concludes with a brief account of the effect on the waves of tributaries and run-off. In section 5, the modifications (similar to diffusion effects) which arise due to the slight dependence of the flow-concentration curve on the rate of change of flow or concentration, are described and methods for their inclusion in the theory are given.