Rethinking the status of water in digital technologies

By Paz Peña O.

Perhaps World Water Day, celebrated this March 22, could be an excuse to talk about how fundamental this element is for the deployment of digital technologies and how its intensive use brings socio-environmental conflicts that we are not used to hearing about. Yet, is not digitization and the digital economy the necessary step towards sustainability? Will not technological innovation be the same that will solve the intensive use of resources such as water?

Latin America, in this scenario, has a varied catalog of socio-environmental conflicts due to the use of water by digital technologies. Just to name a few: water mining for lithium extraction in the Atacama Desert, a fundamental element for the batteries of our digital devices, which has forced the displacement of indigenous populations as well as other native species; the intensive use of water by hyper-scale data centers (the cloud! ) to cool their equipment which could affect human consumption of water as well as the feeding of entire ecosystems such as wetlands; to which is added the intensive hydro-energy use to mine crypto which, in the middle of the energy transition, raises the question of how to decide socially in what clean energy is invested.

In countries of our continent that, irremediably, are facing historic droughts due to the climate crisis, these projects must be accountable for the water they use in the territories where they are installed. This brings us to the classic problem of globalized capitalism in which multinational companies are established in territories where they do not belong and where there is no cultural or sentimental bond, but only a purely commercial and/or extractivist relationship. There, the only forms of accountability are those required by law -if there is a law- and, of course, if there is no authority that, motivated by investment and/or corruption, breaks the law.

On the other hand, accountability from the industry is lukewarm, if it exists at all. Moreover, for many companies, water use is a trade secret. In this environment of total confidentiality, there is an all-or-nothing bet on the future promise that technological innovation will make water use efficient, on their terms and at their convenience.

This scenario should open deep conversations in the continent, especially given the economic, political, and cultural power of technological actors: what is the role of Latin America as an enabling territory for technologies and the digital economy amid the climate crisis? How can local communities, which are already in political mobilization for these projects, have better ways of influencing the accountability of both authorities and industry?

And, perhaps most notably, what status should we give to water in deploying digital projects? We must urgently work to discard the idea that water is a second-class resource in the sustainability of digital technologies. In this sense, it is necessary to create a culture in digital technology that raises the status of water use so that, both in the design of products and services and in the accountability to communities and authorities, there are at least three components: high levels of efficiency in water usage, ensuring human consumption and its habitat as well as other uses enabled in the territories and setting standards of transparency in its use and periodic evaluation.

Rethinking the status of water in digital technologies is urgent in Latin America if we want to avoid social conflict and, of course, survive on a radically different planet.