At first glance, the Internet and water don’t have much in common. Alternatively, they can be considered as media to which we take for granted access. Without water, however, it is probably impossible.

In Poland, according to the CSO report, 91.7% of households will have access to broadband Internet in 2021, and 92.4% will have access to the Internet in general. Exactly the same percentage of the population (according to CSO data for the same year) has access to a water supply. To the sewer system already much less, at just under 72%.

However, there are areas of the world where it is much easier to connect to wi-fi than to the water supply, such as in India.

How much energy does the Internet need?

It would seem that a large amount of energy, let alone water, is not needed to make the Internet work. Appearances can be deceiving, however. The Internet is not just our home or business routers and computers. They are also data centers that store and share data counts and perform all the rest of the activities that are invisible at first glance. According to a report published by the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (del Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos (IEEE)), data centers globally account for between 5% and 9% of the world’s energy consumption. That’s half the energy produced in the United States, twice as much as Japan produces and up to 15 times more than Poland. Google alone consumed 15.4 TWh in 2020, while Facebook consumed 7.2 TWh, according to its sustainability report.

Water vs. Internet access

Water is needed both directly and indirectly for the Internet to work.

The immediate need is for equipment cooling. The operation of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of machines generates large amounts of heat. Servers in such conditions can overheat, so the rooms in which they operate are equipped with very high-efficiency air conditioners, which require water. Its amount consumed to cool data centers globally is extremely difficult to estimate. These clusters of servers are distributed around the world, on almost all continents. The figures reported by various sources for the United States alone are 0.66 km3 in volume in 2020. As a reminder, Poland’s surface water resources are 61 km3 – so 10% would suddenly disappear in the serrents. Such huge volumes of water used in just one country show the scale of the demand, and it must be remembered that data centers are located in a variety of locations, including those with less abundant water, and thus have no chance of gaining priority over other users.

Such a large intake of water results in depletion of resources, which threatens the lack of access for other users. Problems against this backdrop are already emerging. Google has abandoned an investment near Berlin because of problems with the water supply to the planned data center.

The second type of water demand, is related to the direct use of water. Data centers generate demand for large amounts of electricity. It is estimated that 40% of the power absorbed by them goes to maintain the cooling system of the servers, and the remaining 60% goes to the operation of the servers themselves. The world still generates most of its electricity from fossil fuels. Conventional power plants need water for cooling. Its shortage threatens to limit the supply of energy. Poland’s memorable 2015 heatwave and drought triggered the need for restrictions on customers with contracted power above 300 kW, i.e. factories, steel mills, large energy-intensive industrial plants. Such facilities include data centers.

So can a water shortage shut down the Internet?

The answer to this question is not simple. On the one hand, certainly the IT industry is not as drought-proof as it might seem. Facebook says in its sustainability report that its water consumption in 2020 was 2.3 millioncubic meters. This is more than 2.5 times more than in 2017. A lack of water can therefore seriously jeopardize the operation of data centers on which access to content depends. Problems could also affect the Internet when water is restricted at power plants. Power outages will hamper the work of servers. It is therefore possible that in the event of extreme droughts and hot weather, limited operation of the global network will be introduced.

On the other hand, it should be noted that technology companies declare measures to reduce both energy and water consumption. Facebook has announced that it intends to be water neutral by 2030. Google, Apple and Amazon have also made similar declarations. This shows that water is seen at these tech giants as one of the threats to their operations, and measures are planned to improve the use of the natural resource. Air conditioners are being replaced with more water- and energy-efficient ones, such as those using adiabatic cooling.

How these declarations will translate into reality, time will tell. While we’re at it, let’s remember that when we upload hundreds of vacation photos to the cloud, we’re consuming water in the process, and, as it turns out, in no small amount.

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