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17 Jan 2022
Will water be the next Big Headache for large-scale data centers?
Here is an interesting question: What is the most important criteria for choosing a new site for a data center? Are major internet exchanges close by? Maybe. Does the area have enough power? Also true. Or could it be the availability of water?
Focus on water
The discussion about the environmental footprint of data centers has increasingly focused on their water consumption over the past few months. It is because of the lack of transparency when it comes to the water consumption of data centers that local communities and local media have protested against the construction of new large-scale data centers in several countries. Now that climate change is having a noticeable impact on water situations in many parts of the world, both civilians and government officials fear that water consumption will become a problem.
A Dutch provincial government last year asked a research organization to examine (PDF, in Dutch) the water usage of data centers. Only to discover that the data centers that took part in the survey were barely able to come up with solid numbers. Despite this, local press started writing about data centers that threaten the water supply to houses, hospitals, and other facilities. Media stories have drawn attention to the impact data centers have - or may have - on water availability, even though this was not the conclusion of the report. International media also took note of the news.
Water became an issue in Germany when a hyperscaler tried to build a data center near Berlin as part of a German cloud region. The area near Brandenburg has more than enough electricity, but there are no rivers or canals. The only water source is groundwater. In an area with a lot of greenery, extracting groundwater became a major concern, especially after local media reported that the data center would consume 1,3 million cubic meters of water a year. Around 170.000 households in the area would be at risk.
This problem is not unique to Berlin and The Netherlands. Similar issues have been reported in the US as well. Asian media have reported similar issues. Data about the water consumption of data centers is often lacking. The same applies to the chemicals data centers add to the water. Many countries do not require data centers to report this kind of information. The Dutch provincial government requested the research report mentioned above because of this lack of relevant data.
Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact
The data center industry is aware of this situation. In Europe the industry has launched a Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact that looks at water consumption as well. The high water consumption of data centers was one of the reasons Singapore's government temporarily banned the construction of new facilities.
More transparancy needed
Perhaps technology can help here. A tech giant like Microsoft is trying to lower the water consumption of its data centers. As long as water usage cannot be reduced significantly, it will be a major headache for data center companies that want to expand their capacity. A reduction in water consumption will be difficult to monitor without more transparency and more data.
Photo credit: Ismail Enes Ayhan
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