Nowadays, the demand for and collection of data is rapidly becoming one of the biggest global issues. Even though most people do not seem to care about their data being harvested, shared, sold, and used between big corporations—the 'nothing to hide' argument never stops blowing our minds—tech giants such as the GAFA (Google, Amazon, Metaverse (Facebook), Apple) and the likes continue to drain the world dry of its potable water reserves!
Wait, what did I just read?
You’ve read that right! Tech giants are sucking potent water reserves dry and doing everything they can to keep that fact hidden from you! In reality, maybe you don't personally have a water issue at this time. You might even be lucky enough to enjoy a potable, direct supply of water right into your home. But this is far from being the case in many parts of the world. Most regions on Earth are struggling to keep reasonable reserves of potent water and this problem is rapidly spreading to more and more regions thanks to data centers! It’s so bad that it’s now become a major environmental threat.
As the internet continues to centralize itself, mega-corporations keep on building, thanks to tax breaks in many cases, data centers to support their services in areas where water is already scarce. These investments bring employment, which is always a good thing, and some of these corporations even get praised for the renewable energy they make use of, yet nobody dares ask the critical water problem question!
Let’s break it down a little bit
To understand how tech giants are drying our precious potable water reserves, let’s take a hard look at the inconvenient truth.
- So-called 'mega droughts' are at their highest for the past 1,200 years. We can obviously point the finger at climate changes, but data centers, especially in the western half of the United States, have a big portion of the blame to take as well.
- 30% of all data centers in the world are located in the USA, many in the western half of it.
- Tax breaks may help build data centers but just who takes the responsibility to monitor the depletion of rivers, lakes, and groundwater reservoirs these data centers cause?
- In the U.S., the daily water consumption by data centers that report such figures exceeds 1.7 billion liters of water.
- This number is expected to only be 1/3rd of their actual consumption as it only monitors the water consumption of their cooling systems.
- Amazon, for example, does not bother measuring or reporting the water usage of their data centers, a worrying fact considering Amazon’s AWS service is powered by one of the biggest data center networks in the country. And don’t forget, Amazon’s data consumption isn’t limited to AWS; its cloud outlets, Alexa product and, of course, its Amazon.com marketplace, all require massive data warehouses to hold and process the amount of data they collect.
- And then, one out of five data centers is placed near a water reservoir which is already stressed because of the nearby population. Water cooling is cheaper than air cooling and it uses less energy, sure, but it creates water shortages which tend to often be kept out of the public environmental debate.
- Arizona for example, which is one of the hottest and driest states in the U.S., is trying to become a new Silicon Valley. However, it relies on Lake Mead (Hoover Dam) which is currently at a record low of 35% capacity. To make things worse, the Colorado River has lost 18% of its flow! But still, companies are granted tax breaks, rebates, and promises of access to water by some of the same people who claim to be fighting for the environment.
- Apple, Google, Facebook, and many other tech giants are already in Arizona, and are starting to expand. That'll require more and more of that already rare water in the region.
- In Texas, Google requests 6.64 billion liters of water per year. Yes, a single data center uses 10% of all its region’s water reserves which contains 20 towns.
- In the meantime, Dallas encourages its citizens (that’s you, the individual) to use less water as their six reservoirs are 18% depleted. They have a mandatory water restriction in place once this number hits 35%, but they welcome with open arms the insane water requests from tech giants.
- At least, some tech giants like Microsoft report the water consumption on their cooling systems (but not their total water consumption). That’s unlike Amazon, Google, and Facebook who don’t bother to release any numbers to the public.
- In fact, most of them have 'non-disclosure agreements' NDAs with water companies and local governments, to make sure their actual water usage stays a secret. Oh, the hypocrisy!
That’s a lot to take in, right? By now you probably get the point, but the reality is that we’ll need more and more data centers as the worldkeeps on increasing its online presence. As it happens, we will need more data centers to support the various web services that you use (they all collect as much as they can about you, your activities, preferences, location, habits, etc). What’s more, the promised advent and monetization of AI will drive companies to increase the number of data they collect from all of us, making data the new oil or digital gold.
It's time for a change!
No point in calling Houston, this problem won’t go away until we change our habits ourselves. Let’s not be hypocrites here; yes, tech giants act in a very deceiving way and try to sweep the problem under the rug for their own benefit and image, but we, the end-user, are ultimately the ones that feed them with the data. As long as we keep using data-hungry services, we are directly causing these environmental issues. The more we use their platforms, the more their data centers will need to grow and the more water will be consumed.
And as our online presence is much more likely increase rather than decrease over the coming years, there’s a critical question that bears asking.
What can I actually do to fix this problem?
Let's focus on what's under our control. We can’t change the way big tech and other internet companies behave; they are and always have been big for-profit corporations with questionable levels of ethics. What we can do is change our online habits and stop feeding “the beast”.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“But how can I do this?”, you may ask. The answer may not be as hopeless as might think.
The internet is currently experiencing what is perhaps its biggest revolution since it began—the rise of "Web 3".
Web 3 is a general term used to reference a new type of applications and web services that work without any third-party or middleman. They are often powered by blockchains or other peer-to-peer networks and manage data in a distributed way—data is hosted on the computers, or nodes, of the users rather than on central databases that literally suck the waters out of precious reserves.
Take Particl Marketplace, for example. It’s a distributed online marketplace similar to eBay, but on which no data is generated. It provides all the essential tools you would need to buy and sell stuff online, but unlike eBay, Amazon, or Alibaba, it doesn’t require massive data centers that evaporate our precious water reserves. In fact, it generates zero data and has a neutral water consumption level.
Or take Skiff as another great example. It’s an end-to-end encrypted collaborative workspace that gives you similar abilities that you’d get using Google Docs, but it does so in a much more ethical way. First, it’s private and encrypted by default, meaning the company behind cannot collect any meaningful data about you (meaning they then need to store much less of it). And secondly, they are in the process of making their application completely distributed, meaning they could then drastically reduce their "water consumption footprint". What a breath of fresh air when you compare this philosophy to what big tech does.
But you don't even have to step into the new world of Web 3 yet to make a difference. Just change your DNS to one that doesn’t track your every move and stores that information in data centers! And by picking the right DNS, you might even block all those invasive and annoying ads that you see when you browse the web, use your smart phone or smart tv, and etc. Sounds interesting? Then check out this list of recommended DNS servers. One small effort that improves your online experience and helps to save our waters, what's not to like?!
People talk a lot about energy consumption, renewable energies, and climate change. But for some reason, water consumption rarely seems to receive the scrutiny it should. And you’ve got to wonder why; it is the most scarce treasure we have and it’s rapidly becoming a nightmare to manage. But perhaps the companies who use the most of it are those with the deepest pockets and the most...influence?
Together, we can make a vast difference. All we need is to be aware of the problem and the simple, low-efforts solutions we can all take to protect our blue gold. By opting to use Web 3 applications and services rather than platforms powered by massive data centers, we can considerably reduce our levels of water consumption and make a real impact; the only reason tech giants need to build more and more data centers is because we keep on using their applications!
“Sometimes you’re the only one that can save yourself; for no one is coming to save you.” — R.J. Intindola
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