Digital’s role in the water scarcity crisis

If you leave the water running for two minutes while brushing your teeth you can waste up to 18 liters of water. (Approximately 50 liters of water per person per day are needed to ensure that most basic needs are met while keeping public health risks at a low level, according to the UN.) When I searched about this issue on Reddit, a popular discussion forum, some were boasting about the ways they had found to waste water, and some were merely unconcerned. "Yearly, we directly waste or mismanage around 78% of the total water withdrawn,” a group of scientists stated in 2022. In March 2022, California governor Gavin Newsom launched a $100 million advertising campaign to get residents to cut their water usage by 15% compared with 2020 levels. Californians responded by increasing their consumption by nearly 20% instead. Meanwhile, 2022 saw much of the United States suffer through a megadrought. Reservoirs are at record lows as the southwestern US suffers through its worst drought in 1,200 years.

Fresh water is scare and becoming scarcer, and technology plays its part in driving that scarcity. From the vast salt flats of Chile’s Salar de Atacama to the rice paddies of Taiwan, from Bluffdale, Utah, surrounded by its wide open spaces, to the Maharashtra Deccan Plateau of India, the data centers and the chip-making factories have an insatiable, voracious, drunken thirst for water.

India proclaims a data center boom. India, a country with 17% of the world’s population that has just 4% of the world’s fresh water, and is facing increasingly intense droughts, is in thrall to the data center industry. It’s the same obsequious genuflecting in Ireland, where data centers already consume more electricity than all of Irish rural households, and who knows how much water. Because if there’s one thing the data center industry—and the tech industry in general—excels at, it is secrecy. Politicians everywhere are either terrified by or totally under the spell of Big Tech. They will blindly do what they are told in the hope of some jobs being thrown their way, and the photoshoot where they look cool and techy.

Our world may be mainly water, but only 3% of that is fresh water, and most of that is locked up in glaciers, meaning that there’s only about 1% available for drinking and growing food. It’s a precious resource, and it is being hugely abused and wasted. In an increasing number of areas, e-waste and other industrial chemicals and materials are poisoning our water. About 70% of the mining operations of the six largest mining companies are located in water-stressed countries such as Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Fresh water gets sucked into these mining operations and polluted water gets spewed out, or in the case of lithium mining, vast quantities get evaporated as the lithium is left out to dry in the roasting sun on the vast salt flats of the Salar de Atacama. Two million liters of water evaporate in order to make one ton of lithium on these salt flats, while local farmers struggle for enough water to feed their animals. “A standard electric car uses roughly 20 kilograms of lithium; this translates to 40,000 litres of water,” research community Aerocene states. “A Tesla using an 850 kWh lithium-ion battery uses about 51 kilograms of lithium, or 110,000 litres of water, taken directly from Indigenous peoples already experiencing droughts and water shortages.”

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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