Data centers help drive the water scarcity crisis

“I’ve never really understood why big hyper-scaler data centers were installed in high water-stressed regions, like the west part of the US,” environmental researcher Gauthier Roussilhe told me. It makes terrible environmental sense, but clearly it makes good business sense.

I was reminded of the business sense that data centers make as I watched a documentary on water scarcity. The documentary maker was talking about how Big Ag had these mega farms in the US southwest. He tried again and again and again to get interviews with these mega farms growing water-intense alfalfa in the middle of the Arizona desert. Absolutely nobody would speak to him, either on or off the record. Super-secretive, just like data centers. Why did these farms need to be this super-secretive? Maybe, I thought, they are hiding the same secrets that data centers are hiding.

Almari is an innovative Saudi Arabian agricultural conglomerate that has bought major plots of land in the drought-stricken US southwest. Based on clever technology, much of it borrowed from the oil industry, the Saudis learned that they could cheaply pump huge quantities of water from aquifers deep in the Earth. Starting around the 1980s, they turned Saudi Arabia into one of the world’s largest exporters of grain. However, it could not last. Within three decades they had almost drained the gigantic Saudi aquifers that had taken millions of years to form, and the Saudi government banned further water exploitation.

Luckily for Almari, in much of the United States, water is treated essentially as a free, limitless resource, and Almari (along with other Big Ag companies) are now pumping vast quantities of water from deep aquifers in drought-parched Arizona to grow the hugely water-demanding alfalfa plant which is then cut, made into hay and transported thousands of kilometers to the Saudi Arabian desert to feed cows. Crazy capitalist innovation, you say? How innovative is that? Grow hay in the Arizona desert. Ship it halfway round the world to feed cows in the Saudi desert. And make money! Capitalism at its most innovative best.

Cracks are showing, though. Literally. Wells are drying up. The land is cracking and subsiding, huge scars and wounds appearing as the Earth between your feet sags and struggles to stay firm. These ancient aquifers are bled dry in the blink of an eye by companies who know they can get a quick return on investment and then move on to find another place where water is essentially ‘limitless’ and ‘free’. Just like the data centers, with their 5–7-year return on investment focus. They will suck the energy, they will suck the water, and in a weekend of packing up their servers into trailers, they will be gone.

The greatest lie humans have ever told is that it’s cheap or free. Cheap costs the Earth. Cheap and free are built on the devouring and wasting of Earth’s resources. We took 1.4 trillion photos in 2021, more than in the entire 20th century. By 2022, we were storing about 9 trillion photos in data centers, that really are Data Dumps, because 90% of data stored there is never used. Data Dumps are draining the Earth of its water and energy to cool crap.

Not a drop to waste: curbing thirsty data centers, Sebastian Moss, 2020
The Staggering Ecological Impacts of Computation and the Cloud, Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, MIT Press, 2022
Drought-stricken communities push back against data centers, Olivia Solon, NBC News, 2021
The Hidden Environmental Costs of India’s Data Centre Push, Gunjan Jena, The Wire, 2022
How much water do data centers use? David Mytton, 2021
Water Usage in Data Centers, Danica Bautista, 2021 AKCP
Why water usage is the data centre industry’s dirty little secret, Arnaud de Bermingham, Computer Weekly, 2021
Do data centers drink too much? 2015, Michael P. Kassner. Data Center Dynamics
Why water usage is the data centre industry’s dirty little secret, Caroline Donnelly, Computer Weekly, 2021
United States Data Center Energy Usage Report, Berkeley Lab, 2016
Uptime: Most Data Centers Still Not Tracking Environmental Impact, Rich Miller, Data Center Frontier, 2021
Data center water usage remains hidden, Sebastian Moss, Data Center Dynamics, 2021
The Secret Cost of Google's Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water to Cool Servers, Nikitha Sattiraju, Time, 2020
How can businesses create greener data centers? Ian Jeffs, TechRadar, 2022
Just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming requires 2-12 liters of water
Turn off that camera during virtual meetings, environmental study says, Kayla Wiles, PHYS.ORG, 2021
Data Centers, Digital Lifestyles and Water Use, Water Footprint Calculator, 2018
Data centre water usage, Eolas Magazine, 2020
What California can learn from Saudi Arabia’s water mystery, Nathan Halverson, Reveal, 2015
Who keeps buying California's scarce water? Saudi Arabia, Lauren Markham, The Guardian, 2019
Foreign Firms Sucking “Virtual” Water From America’s Parched Southwest, Diana Kruzman, Mother Jones, 2021
Arizona provides sweet deal to Saudi farm to pump water from Phoenix's backup supply, Rob O'Dell and Ian James, Arizona Republic, 2022

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