How many gigabytes of data do you consume every month? In an era where accessing websites, downloading files and scrolling through social media feeds is second nature, we rarely consider how much data we are consuming, or its environmental cost. Researchers at Imperial College London, however, found that downloading just one gigabyte of data requires 200 litres of water. Water is needed to cool the massive data servers that search engines and websites, such as Amazon and Google, use to power their internet services. These facilities also consume electricity at an astonishing rate, with data centres accounting for 2% of the US’ annual power consumption. Meanwhile, data centres in China use as much electricity as Hungary and Greece combined

There are nearly 3 million data centres in the US alone, and a 2014 report from the US Department of Energy found that together, these data centres consume 165 billion gallons of water annually. To put this in context, the World Health Organization estimates that adults need roughly 5 gallons of water a day to meet basic health and hygiene standards. This means that the annual water usage by data centres in the US could support over 90 million people’s basic water requirements for one year. 

Data centres require significant amounts of water due to a process known as “evaporative cooling.” In this process, water is used to cool the air around the server’s processing units. In the past, data centres used air conditioners, but this approach was energy intensive and expensive to operate. Otto Van Geet, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, observed the trade off between water and electricity usage, commenting,  “if the water consumption goes down, energy consumption goes up and vice versa.”

Emma Weisbord, an officer at the International Water association, noted that the water required to support cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin also “cannot be ignored.” One estimate found that Bitcoin’s annual energy consumption exceeded that of countries like Switzerland and Kuwait. Cooling and powering cryptocurrency servers is a water-intensive process, with Bitcoin alone requiring up to 411 billion gallons of water per year. 

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Much of this water is diverted from water scarce communities, particularly in the American South-West. Research from the Illinois Institute of Technology found that data centres in the US are often established in small rural towns, many of which already suffer from water scarcity. These small towns have to make trade-offs between the economic development data centres generate and long-term water access. “With climate change, we are expected to have more prolonged droughts,” said Venki Uddameri, director of the water resources center at Texas Tech University. “These kinds of water-intensive operations add to the local stress.” 

In response to these concerns, some internet companies have tried to improve their water efficiency. For example, Google is experimenting with using reclaimed wastewater and recycling water through its cooling systems multiple times. In 2013, Facebook opened a data centre in the Arctic Circle in Sweden to attempt to make use of naturally cooler temperatures. Similarly, Microsoft has been testing underwater data centres since 2016 to reduce the cost of cooling, as well as reach large populations located in coastal cities. 

In 2021 annual spending on data centres is expected to top USD$200 billion globally, a 6.2% increase from 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a 70% increase in internet usage, with Facebook alone recording a 27% increase in usage. Our internet consumption is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and the number of internet servers required to support our online presence will grow in tandem. 

Just writing this article required around twenty litres of water, and for every hour that you browse the internet reading similar pieces, you use about five. If you want to decrease your online environmental impact, try unsubscribing from unnecessary emails, limiting online movie streaming, reducing the amount of information you store in cloud systems, and choosing green web hosts. To truly limit the internet’s environmental cost, however, consumers will need to continue to demand accountability and ingenuity from the digital giants that profit from our reliance on the internet.