Why is water such a low priority for data centers?

According to Eolas magazine, a data center can use anywhere from 500,000 to 5 million liters of water per day, or between 182 million and 1.8 billion liters a year. According to CloudScene, there were about 8,500 large data centers globally in 2022. That’s between 1.5 and 15 trillion liters of water a year, or enough to fill from 600,000 to 6 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

“A typical data center drains an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two days,” technology journalist Michael Kassner wrote for Data Center Dynamics in 2015. “Is that a problem?” he asked. “In the grand scheme of things data centers’ water usage is minor,” Kassner argued. That’s the constant, relentless spin from Big Tech. Digital: it’s free, or so cheap it’s not even worth thinking about. Create as much as you want. Store as much as you want. Create and store multiple copies just in case. Because tech is green. It’s all in the fluffy, transient, ethereal Cloud. You still believe that?

In the data center world, water is of such low importance that 63% of data center managers believe “there is no business justification” for collecting water usage data, according to Uptime’s annual Global Data Center Survey for 2021. Less than one-third of data centers measure water usage, according to a study published in Nature in 2021. “We don’t know how much water data centers use. We just know it’s a lot,” Sebastian Moss wrote for Data Center Dynamics in 2021.

Because water is such a low priority, when many data centers are making decisions about water usage, it usually involves choosing the cheapest, easiest option. As a result, for example, lots of data centers use cooling towers to manage their water because they are smaller and less expensive to purchase than better-quality closed-circuit alternatives. Cooling towers are inefficient and an environmental hazard. “The Institut Pasteur estimates that between 8,000 and 18,000 people are infected by Legionella every year,” Arnaud de Bermingham, president of cloud provider Scaleway, writes. “In the USA, the Centre for Disease Control identifies cooling towers as one of the main sources of legionnaires’ disease. To avoid the risk of a Legionella infection, most data centres use chlorine and bromine-based chemicals and disinfectants, causing pollution and acid rain. Bromine is a nasty chemical that is highly toxic for organic systems and impacts the neuronal membrane. It has a toxic effect on our brains, and exposure to the chemical can result in drowsiness and psychosis amongst other neurological disorders.” But hey, anything to save a few bucks.

It seems that so much about the culture of data centers is about super-quick return on investment, that they are financially designed to maximize resource extraction from the local community, minimize costs and thus maximize quick returns, with a typical data center showing a return on investment within 5-7 years. There can be no worse neighbor for a local community than a data center. They bring very few good local jobs and are maximum extractors of local water and energy.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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