World Wide Waste with Gerry McGovern

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate 'Thirsty Data: Data Centers increasing impact on fresh water'

John Carter
September 7, 2023
65
 MIN
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World Wide Waste with Gerry McGovern
September 7, 2023
65
 MIN

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate 'Thirsty Data: Data Centers increasing impact on fresh water'

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Episode shownotes

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate is a postdoctoral researcher in the Fixing Futures research training group at Goethe University. As a graduate of MIT's History, Anthropology, Science, Technology & Society program, his dissertation project, "Cloud Ecologies", is an ethnography of data centers and their environmental impacts in the United States, Puerto Rico, Iceland, and Singapore.

There is a global freshwater crisis and this crisis is being accelerated by data centers’ incredible thirst for water. Steven talks to Gerry about the environmental impact data centers are having on fresh water supply, particularly in water-stressed areas, and how it is likely to get worse because AI is particularly water intense

Some selected quotes from Steven:

Some scholars are estimating that anything from 5% to 10% of data center water comes from alternative water sources, like grey water, sea water. But the vast majority is drinking water. And there are a few reasons for this. One is the biohazard. As water is being warmed and flowing through these data centers, microorganisms flourish in these conditions. That is one reason why data centers turn to drinking water because that water has already to some degree been treated, so there is less of s risk of these microbial blooms happening. For the same microbial reason, the water can’t be endlessly recycled. It has to be dumped or returned to the sewers because even with reverse-osmosis filters and other techniques, these microbes will flourish.

Some water, when it evaporates can leave behind really corrosive particulates of various kinds.

The data centers will come if you offer them the right incentives around land, water and electricity, even is these incentives are fundamentally unsustainable, if they’re irresponsible, if they’re suicidal or self-destructive.

If you have access to cheap fresh water, deserts are a great place for data centers because they are so dry—and computers hate moisture and high humidity. That’s why there are so many data centers in Arizona “It’s almost like the goldrush. It’s a water-rush. All these companies are clustering to get this cheap water. But it’s doomed.” As the suicidal spiral by data centers and industrial farming circles the drains in even more frenzied swirls, “We see how communities are struggling to pay their water bills while data centers and other industries are getting water at a much cheaper rate. There are farmers who are directly competing with data centers to grow food. Indigenous communities are also having difficulties accessing water. The draining of the Colorado river is affecting the migration patterns of salmon and other fish, which are really important to the lifecycles.

These data centers will not last. I think that’s another important point for people to realize. These data centers are ephemeral. They know that they will eventually have to disband. This is the kind of perversity of data centers coming into many communities with these promises of economic growth. There is certainly a lot of jobs that are created to construct the data center. But once a data center has actually been constructed, it’s only a handful of people who actually run a facility. So, in some cases, just a dozen people, or two dozen people, run a facility that is consuming as much electricity as a small city. A data center life is between five and twenty years. This is not a permanent industry. It is extractive, like mines.

World Wide Waste (Gerry's latest book)

Episode Transcript

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“Some scholars are estimating that anything from 5% to 10% of data center water comes from alternative water sources, like grey water, sea water. But the vast majority is drinking water. And there are a few reasons for this. One is the biohazard. As water is being warmed and flowing through these data centers, microorganisms flourish in these conditions. That is one reason why data centers turn to drinking water because that water has already to some degree been treated, so there is less of s risk of these microbial blooms happening. For the same microbial reason, the water can’t be endlessly recycled. It has to be dumped or returned to the sewers because even with reverse-osmosis filters and other techniques, these microbes will flourish.”

Some water, when it evaporates can leave behind really corrosive particulates of various kinds.

The data centers will come if you offer them the right incentives around land, water and electricity, “even if these incentives are fundamentally unsustainable, if they’re irresponsible, if they’re suicidal or self-destructive.”

“If you have access to cheap fresh water, deserts are a great place for data centers because they are so dry—and computers hate moisture and high humidity. That’s why there are so many data centers in Arizona “It’s almost like the goldrush. It’s a water-rush. All these companies are clustering to get this cheap water. But it’s doomed.” As the suicidal spiral by data centers and industrial farming circles the drains in even more frenzied swirls, “We see how communities are struggling to pay their water bills while data centers and other industries are getting water at a much cheaper rate. There are farmers who are directly competing with data centers to grow food. Indigenous communities are also having difficulties accessing water. The draining of the Colorado river is affecting the migration patterns of salmon and other fish, which are really important to the lifecycles.”

“These data centers will not last. I think that’s another important point for people to realize. These data centers are ephemeral. They know that they will eventually have to disband. This is the kind of perversity of data centers coming into many communities with these promises of economic growth. There is certainly a lot of jobs that are created to construct the data center. But once a data center has actually been constructed, it’s only a handful of people who actually run a facility. So, in some cases, just a dozen people, or two dozen people, run a facility that is consuming as much electricity as a small city. A data center life is between five and twenty years. This is not a permanent industry. It is extractive, like mines.”

So, in Puerto Rico we had Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Maria right before that in 2017. And those were the most devastating hurricanes to hit the Caribbean in a really long time. It was a natural disaster that killed over four thousand people. There were tens of thousands of people who were displaced and permanently relocated. In the island, there were people without power for nine months. There were people, including my extended family, who had limited access to water for much of that time as well. But meanwhile, the data centers on this island experienced no interruption to their water or electricity supply. And this is not a bug. This is a feature of data center design. This is political. We have to think about the ways we are prioritizing computers over human beings. In Puerto Rico, while all these people were suffering, this data center was running. It’s a question that we have to ask ourselves. Where are our priorities as a civilization? We appear to be prioritizing computational needs over human rights.

A lot of water evaporates. They’re not very water efficient. And there’s no reason for them to be because there’s no regulation. There’s no incentive.

If you were advising communities in Latin America:
“I would say pay very close attention to the local government zoning laws. Pay very close attention to any local government approval of the construction. Also, be in communication with people who are in some ways connected to the utilities infrastructures so that you can have a heads up on what those impacts might be. Because though much of this is secret there are still very smart people who can do educated guesswork to get some preliminary numbers out there about how these facilities will impact their communities. Speak with your local politicians. Find out what they know. Hold them to account. Take them to task. Create networks of resistance and make transparency demands. And the other thing that’s really important is that since these issues are on a global scale, you can also reach out beyond your local networks to get more attention and research and coverage.

“I think grassroots mobilization is incredibly important. Lately, grassroots mobilization is something that is having a much greater effect than I think a lot of folks in the data center industry were expecting. In the case of Chandler, Arizona, I was with a group of individuals who were experiencing noise pollution as a result of living near data centers. They successfully, after many years of meetings and protesting, and organizing as a community, were able to get the first city noise ordinance passed that is specifically written for data centers in the USA.

If we look at the world and the future that’s ahead of us, The Tropics will be developed. There will be many data centers that will be clustering throughout the tropics.

63% of data center managers don’t see a “business justification” for collecting water usage data.
“I think that’s just it. There’s no business justification. They’re not thinking about this water in the language of human rights, in the language of planetary sustainability, eco system stability. They’re thinking of this purely in business terms. Water is an asset that is used to perform a specific function inside of a data center. And it has such a minimal impact in terms of the total cost of operation, that it’s barely worth tracking, or not worth tracking at all. And that does speak volumes about why it has been so difficult for researchers to even get clear information on the water use of data centers. There are scholars who have done studies and published in Nature and elsewhere that are estimating somewhere in the region of three to five million gallons of water a day in the average data center. But there’s a lot of guesswork involved in these figures because of the complete lack of transparency. But it also seems to be the complete lack of interest in racking the staggering use of what is a really scarce and essential resource for life.

They grow bigger deserts. With their insatiable thirst for cheap water, they come to the desert to make it bigger and drier.
Desertification is one of the primary drivers of the climate crisis. We have to pay attention to how water is disappearing from the Earth’s surface because that process of desertification is very much exacerbating the climate crisis. It’s incredibly important that we hold data center companies and technology companies to account.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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