Big Tech’s negative impact on fresh water

There is a global freshwater crisis and this crisis is being accelerated by data centers’ and chip makers’ incredible thirst for water. Not alone that, the manufacturing of technology and the end-of-life e-waste is poisoning increasing quantities of fresh water.

About 3% of all water on Earth is fresh, and about 2% of that is locked up in glaciers, leaving about 1% for drinking and growing food. Population growth increases demand for this water, but fertilizer overuse, and industrial demand and pollution, affect availability even more.

In many places, huge quantities of water are wasted, and there is generally so little value placed on water that businesses like data centers and chip manufacturers have historically treated it as if it were a free resource. In fact, surveys show that the majority of data centers don’t see a business case for measuring how much water they use.

It is estimated that data centers globally are using up to 2% of available water and if growth continues as expected, that demand could increase by a factor of 10 or 20 by 2035. The global electronics industry may already be using around 10% of available water. Right now, farmers in Taiwan and the USA are being paid not to use water so that there will be enough for the data centers and chip manufacturers.

Based in Taiwan, TSMC is the largest chip manufacturer in the world. In 2022, it used 105 million tons of water. There are studies, going back to at least 2009, showing that waste coming from TSMC is filling local rivers with toxins.

While e-waste only makes up 2% of the rubbish in landfills, it accounts for 70% of landfills’ toxicity, much of which leaks into the water table. E-waste is the fastest growing waste in the world, and much of the e-waste generated in the Global North ends up dumped in the Global South. However, the e-waste dumped in poorer countries doesn’t always stay there. Reaching coastal waters through rivers and streams, the toxins end up in plankton, where they are consumed by fish which are in turn consumed by middle-class people in Europe and North America.

The relentless “Green” Transition is already having devastating impacts on Nature. In the dry Chilean plains of Salar de Atacama, 500,000 gallons of water are required to mine one ton of lithium, depriving local communities of water, with the mining process also poisoning the environment.

It can take 190,000 liters of water to make a laptop. Five billion laptops were manufactured between 2006 and 2022. That’s 950 billion tons of water. It can take 13,000 liters of water to make one smartphone. Sixteen billion smartphones were made between 2007 and 2022. That’s 240 billion tons of water.

Training ChatGPT can directly consume 700,000 liters of clean fresh water. (This does not include total water costs associated with the hardware used.) An average conversation with ChatGPT could consume half a liter of water.

Digital is physical. Digital is toxic. The Cloud is on the ground, and like real clouds, it is full of water. It’s the price the environment must pay for human innovation and progress, they say. We are, of course, bankrupting the environment, and, of everything out there, our environment is the only true thing that is too big to fail.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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