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The Cloud vs. drought: Water hog data centers threaten Latin America, critics say

Digital screens in New York's Times Square.

Digital screens in New York's Times Square. The world, analysts say, is in the process of creating “digital doppelgangers.” Image by Florian Wehde via Unsplash (Public domain).

  • Droughts in Uruguay and Chile have led residents to question the wisdom of their governments allowing transnational internet technology companies to build water-hungry mega-data centers there.
  • As servers process data, they need lot of water to keep them cool. But if demand grows as expected, the world will need 10-20 times more data centers by 2035, and they’ll be using far more water. Many will likely be built in economically and water-challenged nations already facing climate change-intensified droughts.
  • Latin American communities fear that this “data colonialism” will consume water they desperately need for drinking and agriculture, and are critical of their governments for giving priority treatment to transnational tech giants like Google and Microsoft, while putting people’s access to a basic human necessity at risk.
  • Surging digital data use by 2030 may cause each of us in the developed world to have a “digital doppelganger,” with our internet use consuming as much water as our physical bodies. But much of the stored data is “junk.” Critics urge that nations insist on tougher regulations for transnational companies, easing the crisis.

Like so much of the rest of the world, Latin America is being battered by increasingly extreme weather events — especially intensifying drought, driven by climate change.

In Uruguay, which had always enjoyed plentiful rains, this year’s drought, the worst in seven decades, came as a shock. “Montevideo was the first capital in the world to arrive at ‘day zero’ and run out of potable water,” says environmentalist Eduardo Gudynas. The government, he reports, dealt with the crisis by relaxing its drinking water standards and, for the first time, allowed residents to drink from the salt-tasting Rio de la Plata.

A severe drought has also battered Chile. By the start of 2022, more than half the country’s 19 million people were living in areas suffering from “severe water scarcity,” and by April 2022, an unprecedented water rationing plan was being implemented in the country’s capital, Santiago.

These droughts have eased, for now, but concern is rising in South American nations where vulnerability to water shortages will only escalate as climate change deepens — meaning that water distribution and consumption must be far better managed.

But this urgent need flies in the face of a transnational internet technology industry that has newly arrived on the continent with its gigantic data centers, which are large-scale water hogs.

Data center in Google center in Georgia.
Data centers, like this Google center in Georgia, use huge amounts of energy and require regular hardware updates. Servers need constant cooling to protect data. Although their operations and energy consumption are largely opaque to the public, estimates suggest that Cloud streaming and digital game downloads can rival the energy used to physically distribute game discs. Image courtesy of Google.

A ‘Cloud’ that never rains

Most people understand that vast sums of data are stored not on their home computers but elsewhere, in a realm vaguely dubbed the “Cloud.” But the Cloud is not an atmospheric phenomenon that makes rain. It is a real place — or rather, many real places.

According to conversations Mongabay held with industry sources, the Cloud as it currently exists is housed in roughly 100 million computer servers, mostly located inside vast data centers, with each a gigantic warehouse covering many acres. Most, up to now, have been sited in the developed world, but IT companies are in the process of opening new centers in the Global South.

Existing data centers are already having very real impacts on the global environment — especially the world’s energy and freshwater supply — and these problems are likely to get worse. However, it is extremely difficult to estimate current data center water consumption because two-thirds of centers don’t even record their water usage, let alone make predictions of future useage. When asked about how much water U.S. data centers presently use, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory research scientist responds, “We don’t really know. … I never thought it could be worse transparency than on the energy side, but we actually know less.”

Bluefield Research, which specializes in water research, predicts that by 2030, data center water usage will top roughly 1.7 billion liters (450 million gallons) daily — more than double the known consumption in 2017. But this must be a serious underestimate as, in its latest environmental report, Microsoft disclosed it alone consumed almost 1.7 billion liters of water in 2022. The computing power required by artificial intelligence (AI) will greatly fuel the need for new data centers in the years ahead.

By 2030, the average European internet user is expected to consume 3 liters (0.8 gallons) of water every 24 hours — more than that person drinks each day. The world, analysts say, is in the process of creating “digital doppelgangers.” This means that in the cyber world that Meta (formerly Facebook) and other IT firms are frenetically building, the virtual body will demand as much, or more, water daily as the physical human body.

“The more virtual we become, the more water we need,” explains Pablo Gámez Cersosimo, a researcher specializing in technology and biodiversity, “It is the water that makes virtuality possible.”

If data use keeps increasing at this exponential pace, by 2035, humanity may need 10-20 times more data centers globally, with Latin America eyed by the IT industry as an inexpensive site for that expansion. Drought-impacted Uruguay and Chile currently figure into those plans.

The Science Park in Canelones in southern Uruguay where Google plans to build its data center.
The Science Park in Canelones in southern Uruguay where Google plans to build its data center. Image courtesy of Data Center Dynamics.

High demand placed on a dwindling public supply

The new data centers popping up in developing nations will be thirsty. That’s because, as servers store and process data, they get hot, and freshwater coming from the public supply is the cheapest way to cool them. That’s because microorganisms are routinely eliminated from public drinking water using bromine, chlorine and other disinfectants.

That same treatment is needed by the IT firms. “As water is being warmed, and flows through these data centers, microorganisms flourish,” explains Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, a postdoctoral researcher with Fixing Futures, a research training group at Goethe University in Germany. By using free treated public water supplies, “there is less risk of these microbial blooms happening.”

However, the IT industry’s tapping into public drinking water supplies directly competes with people’s basic needs for it. And that competition is going to get more intense. With the explosion of artificial intelligence, “Google’s cooling water consumption in 2022 increased by 20% compared with 2021, and Microsoft’s water consumption increased by 34% over the same period,” says Shaolei Ren, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Riverside.

For years, Big Tech has boasted of its data centers’ energy efficiency — and of its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The part of the story the industry doesn’t tell is that a great deal of this energy savings is achieved by massively increasing water use. This is because it is more energy-efficient to use water-filled cooling towers than to run air conditioning to control temperatures in the centers.

As global water shortages get worse, local communities are likely to become increasingly concerned. As Cersosimo puts it, “Based on the information and knowledge available … the water footprint of digitalization could be larger and more problematic than its carbon footprint.”

As a result, local communities are becoming much less willing to host IT centers, which provide few jobs but high resource demands.

“Data centers are facing more and more opposition worldwide from local communities because people are starting to understand that most of the positive impacts of a data center will not be seen by the local community,” says Gauthier Roussilhe, a researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Resistance is especially strong in Latin America.

This poster was made by Pamela Ramirez, an activist who helped lead community resistance against the construction of a Google data centre in Cerrillos, an industrial and residential area in Santiago, Chile. It reads: “Danger! Danger! No to the data center! Data theft!” One of the main concerns of Ramirez’s community was water usage. Image courtesy of Pamela Ramirez.

Protests in Chile and Uruguay

Chile has been at the forefront of transnational IT company data center investment and was chosen by Google in 2018 as its regional hub. Sebastián Piñera, the Chilean president at the time, expressed delight, saying it was an important step in the nation’s striving to become a digital economy and diversify away from dependence on copper extraction. He promised that Chile would be at the forefront of what he called “the current of history.”

But some communities don’t share the government’s enthusiasm. Residents in Cerrillos, a suburb of Santiago, where Google is basing its hub, voted in a local referendum in February 2020 against the center’s construction. They were deeply concerned about the amount of water to be used in its cooling towers: 169 liters (45 gallons) per second, in a region long afflicted by drought. Though not binding, the referendum persuaded Google to employ a less water-intensive cooling system.

Quilicura, also near Santiago, is currently protesting against a proposal by Microsoft to build a data center there. When Microsoft president Brad Smith announced the Quilicura project in December 2020, he pledged that, “We aren’t building a data center just to power our own business, but to provide a critical investment in Chile’s infrastructure that will serve all the people who live here and customers who operate here.”

Protests in Uruguay erupted early in 2023, opposing Google’s plan to build a large data center in the department of Canelones, in the country’s south. Uruguayan campaigners haven’t found the company sympathetic to their complaints. They were forced to go to court to gain even limited information about Google’s plans, and only then learned that its cooling towers will need 7.6 million liters (2 million gallons) of potable water a day.

In response, Google tells Mongabay that all water consumption figures are preliminary: “The Uruguay data center project is still in the exploratory phase, and Google’s technical team is actively working with the support of national and local authorities. As potential planning and design continues, we expect preliminary numbers [on water use] to undergo adjustments.” Google still needs to complete a project environmental assessment and be approved for an environmental permit and operation permit.

Carmen Sosa is part of the opposition to the project and a campaigner with the Commission in Defense of Water and Life, a grassroots coalition that in 2004 led a campaign that resulted in a constitutional amendment that made fresh drinking water a human right in Uruguay. This marks one of first instances of the inclusion of a basic environmental right in a country’s constitution.

This banner, carried in demonstrations against the Uruguayan government’s handling of the serious drought earlier in 2023, reads: “Water is not a present, it is not for sale, it must be defended.”
This banner, carried in demonstrations against the Uruguayan government’s handling of the serious drought earlier in 2023, reads: “Water is not a present, it is not for sale, it must be defended.” Image courtesy of Radio Havana Cuba.

Sosa says she believes that the wave of protests over the government’s inept handling of this year’s record drought will prove “a turning point” in the way Uruguayan society views the country’s environmental problems. “Who doesn’t defend access to potable water? Who likes to drink poor quality water?” she asks.

What greatly angers her coalition, and other communities globally, is that governments, without seeking public consultation, are giving priority to corporations and economic growth in the allocation of water over human need. The slogan in protests against the water shortages in Uruguay this year has been the powerful: No es sequia, es saqueo! — “It’s not drought, it’s pillage!”

Daniel Peña, a researcher at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, says he believes the trouble created by the new data center is more extensive than the exacerbation of the existing water shortage, serious as that is. “Google will generate very little employment as it will just store data,” he notes. “It won’t pay tax, as it’s being built in a duty-free zone. It will give Uruguay virtually nothing and at the same time bring in its wake a set of serious ecological and social problems.”

It’s true that data centers offer few jobs. A center consuming as much electricity as a small city may need just 30 employees, and not for all that long, Gonzalez notes. “A data center’s life is between five and 20 years. This is not a permanent industry. It is extractive, like mines.”

Data centers, say experts, are transient businesses, rapidly constructed in a Lego-like manner, using box-shaped utilitarian architecture. Like the computers and the data products the IT industry sells, planned obsolescence is built into the structures.

Carmen Sosa
Carmen Sosa, an environmental activist in Uruguay, played a key role in the campaign that led to a constitutional amendment in 2004 making access to fresh potable water a human right. “Article 47 in the Constitution now says that the administration of water resources must be in the hands of the citizens,” she notes. “We must have a say in what happens to our natural wealth and water resources.” She believes this constitutional right is being violated by government and corporate secrecy in planning new data centers. Image courtesy of ICIFlorestal.

Data colonialism

According to industry sources, it now appears that data centers are being sited wherever IT companies can find cheap water and electricity and lax environmental standards. With much of the United States facing an imminent water crisis, inexpensive Latin American water is being seen as an attractive alternative. Because of the nature of the internet, U.S. data can just as easily be stored in Chile as in California’s Silicon Valley.

Google boasts that its Uruguay data center will serve Google users worldwide, instantaneously processing requests for services such as Google Search, Gmail and YouTube. But critics respond with a tough question: Do you provide freshwater to a Montevideo family to drink, or to cool down a server satisfying a Los Angeles teenager’s desire to watch TikTok videos?

Some analysts see the export of data centers to the Global South not as economic opportunity, but as new form of exploitation — data colonialism.

Like other governments eager to boost economic growth, authorities in Uruguay see data centers only for the opportunities they offer. Uruguay’s government-owned power company, the National Administration of Power Plants and Electrical Transmission, says it will have “no problem in satisfying Google’s energy demand.” The state-owned Uruguayan water utilities company, likewise expresses confidence it will be able to guarantee the IT firm’s water demands.

Google, a company that refused to release information on its water use in Chile until it was legally forced to do so, tells Mongabay it is rigorously adhering to the government approval process. But sources in Uruguay report that this approval process is little more than a formality, as Google is already moving ahead with construction of an underwater communication cable extending from the U.S. East Coast to Las Toninas, Argentina, and Punta del Este, Uruguay.

A banner carried in demonstrations earlier this year against the Uruguayan government’s handling of the record drought reads: “Freshwater for agribusiness, Salty and contaminated water for the population.”
A banner carried in demonstrations earlier this year against the Uruguayan government’s handling of the record drought. It reads: “Freshwater for agribusiness, Salty and contaminated water for the population.” Image via X/Twitter.

Junk data

All this frenzied data growth hides behind a perplexing statistic. Perhaps 90% of the data stored in data centers is waste — junk data. A product manager at Microsoft 365 confirms to Mongabay off the record that only 5-10% of data is still being used three months after it’s stored. Fifty percent or more of internet traffic is video. Another sizable proportion is social media and bots — junk data used in the moment, then forgotten. But all the stored data still need to be cooled, day in and day out. Some 20 million servers are also unnecessarily replaced each year, even though they could be securely wiped and reused.

It is here corrective measures are very possible, say industry analysts. Legislation could be passed to force tech companies to reduce the amount of waste data they store and restrict the amount of water they use.

Under the Climate Neutral Datacentre Pact, a pledge made by industry and trade associations in the European Union to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a limit of 0.4 liters (0.1 gallons) of water per kilowatt-hour was set for data centers, and efforts could be made to enforce this limit globally. Governments could also reduce the subsidies and grants — taxpayer handouts given to Big Tech companies.

Tough measures are needed now to avert a water crisis in Latin America and elsewhere. By 2030, it’s expected that global freshwater demand will be 40% greater than available supply, with billions of people lacking access to safe water. Latin America is expected to have some of the highest increases in water demand globally.

But data center activists say they don’t expect legislative relief, because government and Big Tech work closely together, with deals often done secretly. They say communities can only be successful in their campaigns if they act as soon as they hear of the first report of a planned data center, mobilizing locally and reaching out to an evolving international advocacy network.

A data center in Frankfurt, Germany.
A data center in Frankfurt, Germany. These huge, largely windowless buildings require few employees, but need lots of water to operate. Image courtesy of Baxtel.

Activists say potentially impacted communities also need to learn to ask the right questions: Will the data center be using the public freshwater supply? If yes, why isn’t the company using wastewater? How much water will be used? How much water will the firm keep as backup? What chemicals will be used in treatment? How will wastewater be treated? And how will the data center benefit the local community?

Activists believe community action is the only way forward. Uruguay campaigner Sosa puts it this way: “The defense of natural resources and the environment is too important to leave to politicians. We all have to be involved.”

Banner image: Digital screens in New York’s Times Square. The world, analysts say, is in the process of creating “digital doppelgangers.” Image by Florian Wehde via Unsplash (Public domain).

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Farfan, J., & Lohrmann, A. (2023). Gone with the clouds: Estimating the electricity and water footprint of digital data services in Europe. Energy Conversion and Management, 290, 117225. doi:10.1016/j.enconman.2023.117225

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