April 14, 2022

Watering the internet

CBA to read?

Need a drink? So does the internet.

By 2023, an anticipated two-thirds of the world’s population will have internet access. That is a staggering 5.3 billion people with an approximate 29.3 billion devices online¹. For us to enjoy a reliable connection in the midst of such traffic, data centres around the world will be put through their paces in supplying an endless amount of servers with the power, interconnectivity and cooling necessary for a continued service². Whilst climate-conscious individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the energetic demand associated with such endeavours, we know scarcely little about how much water is consumed in the process and internet providers are less than forthcoming on the issue.

Both the quality and availability of water sources around the world is of great and growing concern³ and as such, it is important that we better understand how water is used in provision of the internet and from where it is sourced. But first, let’s address the main ways in which internet-providing data centres use water:


ICT equipment generates vast amounts of heat, reliant then on internal mechanisms drawing cool air over the hot metal transfers to conduct heat away from machinery and into the external environment². On a large scale, data centres undergo a similar process to keep server rooms cool (usually within a strict temperature range), the difference here being that water is most often used as the medium for heat transfer⁴. Most data centres rely on chillers to reduce air temperature by having cool water transfer heat from the environment. Others use cold-plate heat exchangers whereby water-cooled plates are put in direct contact with the elements that generate most heat⁴.

Regardless of method, a considerable amount of energy is required to cool water — in the case of the most inefficient cooling systems, this can account for up to 40% of data centre energy consumption⁴, further adding to the environmental concern surrounding our dependence on the internet.


In 2014, over 626 billion litres of water were consumed by US data centres alone⁵ — imagine what this figure might look like 8 years later in 2022 and then consider the impact of data centres worldwide! It is estimated that over three-quarters of water consumed by this industry is a result of indirect dependencies⁶, with data centres reliant on water to generate the electricity that they thirst for. Water is first pre-treated to remove corroding contaminants and then evaporated into steam which is used to rotate turbines, thus generating electricity.

A large majority of water used in this capacity is lost to the environment in evaporative processes (referred to as consumptive loss). Some, however, is discharged as effluent and returned to the source from which it came, whether that be natural surface/underground reservoirs or reclaimed and treated potable (safe to drink) water².


Regardless of the vast quantities of water consumed by the internet worldwide, the real issue is transparency. The tracking of water-related metrics is of low priority to many data centres/internet providers and thus it goes unreported. This leaves us with little information with which to assess the severity of the situation, preventing us from gaining a complete appreciation for the ways in which the industry should change to reduce its ecological footprint².

In addition to this, we must be conscious of WHERE the water is sourced from; an increased dependence on potable water will likely increase global tensions with data centres taking from a resource that could be used to sustain human populations in a time of increasing water scarcity. Again, this calls for transparency. We are aware that water scarcity has an impact on populations worldwide, the state of global ecosystems and even climate change, yet we are unaware as to how data centres may be contributing to this. We need to know the volumes of water consumed, where it is being sourced from and how internet providers hope to mitigate their impact on people and the planet.

Our request is simple; data centres need to be better held accountable for their water efficiency and it is something that DEMANDS increased attention.


we know you want to 👀


[1]: Cisco (2020) Cisco annual internet report (2018–2023) white paper. https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/executive-perspectives/annual-internet-report/white-paper-c11-741490.html Accessed: 01/04/2022.

[2]: Mytton, D. (2021) Data centre water consumption. NPJ Clean Water 4(11). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41545-021-00101-w

[3]: UNESCO. (2020) The United Nations world water development report 2020: water and climate change. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000372985.locale=en Accessed: 05/04/2022.

[4]: Capozzoli, A. and Primiceri, G. (2015) Cooling Systems in Data Centres: State of Art and Emerging Technologies. Energy Procedia, 83 (pp 484–493). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.


[5]: Shehabi, A., Smith, S., Sartor, D., Brown, R., Herrlin, M., Koomey, J., Masanet, E., Horner, N., Azevedo, I. and Linter, W. (2016) United States Data Centre Energy Usage Report. Technical Report. https://doi.org/10.2172/1372902

[6]: Moss, S. (2021) Data centre water usage remains hidden https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/analysis/data-center-water-usage-remains-hidden/ Accessed: 05/04/2022