Big Tech needs to tackle its water addiction

October 5, 2021, 11:08 AM UTC
Billions of gallons of water are used to cool servers in data centers.
Bloomberg - Getty Images

Skeptics (including me) assembled when Facebook, Google and Microsoft made respective pledges to replenish more water than they use within the next fifteen years. The main reason: private companies are beholden to shareholders, boards, bottom lines, and customers–not pledges.

Big Tech needs a big amount of water to keep big servers in big data centers cool. It’s a fundamental element of the internet’s backend and core to each company’s business model. For some tech titans like Elon Musk, this is simply the cost of innovation. Regardless of where executives fall on the water conservation spectrum, global tech companies—as well as other organizations with water-positive ambitions like 3M and Pepsi—will need to get creative to convert corporate pledges from shallow PR plays into meaningful progress.

Running a global online business, powering consumer searches and purchases, and connecting users takes bandwidth. It also requires backend activity that heats physical servers and requires billions of gallons of water to keep them cool in physical data centers sprinkled around the world.

Despite some creativity on the legacy side of data center construction from Microsoft, decreasing water requirements for digital business will prove difficult for most companies in pursuit of water positivity and relentless growth concurrently.

For context, Google accessed 2.3 billion gallons of water for use in three America-based data centers (out of 21 data centers in operation total) in 2019 alone. Facebook withdrew roughly 3.7 million cubic meters of water in 2020, with the majority of that water applied to cooling data centers and being lost to evaporation.

Bigger than data centers

Achieving a water-positive future will involve transforming the way companies, operations, fulfilment centers, supply chains, offices, and consumer interactions tap into the global water supply. In parallel, authorities that provide water for community use will always be the priority for regulators, as they should be.

For tech giants like Facebook, building an $800 million solar plant in Arizona while making water pledges, this will likely translate into more laws and regulations coming into play to protect community rights to drinkable water. This is a positive development.

The future will also entail looking outside of potable water to maintain stakeholder trust, attract conscious consumers and responsibly conserve the planet’s finite water supply. Facebook’s Sylvia Lee outlined a few concrete steps the company has taken over the past few years to reduce water use on campuses around the world, including installing efficient plumbing fixtures, collecting rainwater and withdrawing treated wastewater for non-potable uses and planting low-water-use plants that reduce irrigation needs.

It might be a start, but we’ll need every company that pledges to achieve water positivity or invest in water stewardship to follow up with actually doing the work.

Looking beyond the pledges

As more businesses make water stewardship or positivity pledges, more stakeholders and consumers will start to pay attention to whether brands follow through on them. Boards, investors, and other business stakeholders will increase pressure on companies to make pledges and transparently report on progress. Conscious consumers previously focused on carbon footprints and environmental impacts will fold water use and replenishment into buying decisions.

There’s evidence the global pandemic is already accelerating and broadening the trend. An Accenture survey found that 66% of consumers are currently focused on making more sustainable choices when shopping.

Bottom lines, regulations and global consumer trends will be influenced either way. It’s in the best interest of forward-looking companies to urgently get on board with working towards water positivity.

While pledges look and sound noble, skepticism will persist because converting big promises to big progress will require a firm combination of hard work, investment, creativity, transparency and accountability well beyond the boardroom.

There are also downstream consequences of both action and inaction to consider. For instance, many U.S. tech employees work from water-stressed communities in states like California or Arizona. Office campuses are built in areas prone to flooding, drought or a combination of water-related factors. These are all pressing issues tech giants can’t solve alone. There must be an all-hands-on-deck, multi-sector approach to find solutions.

The private sector’s movement toward water positivity has the potential to scale into a full-blown, worldwide effort. Big names in tech and business will hopefully elevate water stewardship from a singular PR move padding corporate reputations into a genuinely global focus and core business concern for years to come.

I also hope the public sector will make it a priority to introduce regulations that pressure organizations into joining the pursuit of water positivity, and that the best-placed experts, local water authorities, and utilities will have the final say in the matter. A true watershed moment for business and humanity hangs in the balance.

David Lynch is the CEO of Klir, headquartered in Reno, Nevada.

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