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Uruguay’s devastating drought was at its peak when President Luis Lacalle Pou took an unexpected question from a young student during a visit to a primary school in the capital: “Why is the water so salty?”

“We have to wait for the rain,” Lacalle Pou replied. “We must save our water only for essential needs.”

Recent rainfall has eased the parched conditions that prompted the government to mix water supplies with a brackish source in parts of Montevideo, and the capital’s depleted reservoirs have started to recover.

But many Uruguayans who are unable to afford bottled water say the government has prioritised industrial uses during this year’s drought, stirring anger over plans by Google to build a data centre using millions of litres daily to cool its servers.

“These companies consume vast volumes of water, which are, in turn, our reserves,” said Daniel Pena, a sociologist and researcher at the Republic University in Montevideo.

“Now, with the drought, it’s as if someone emptied your bank account. Your savings just aren’t there any more,” said Pena, who has campaigned against growing use of potable water by industry as a member of the Co-Ordination for Water civil group.

Alphabet-owned Google has acquired land in the western department of Canelones to build its second data centre in Latin America. In 2015, it opened its first in the region in a suburb of Chile’s capital, Santiago, announcing three years later that it would triple its size to meet growing demand.

The company’s plans to build a second project in Chile — which has been gripped by drought for more than a decade — have faced delays since 2020 as local communities filed environmental complaints.

Whose water is it anyway?

According to Google’s sustainability data, the company’s more than 20 data centres consumed about 19.8-billion litres of water in 2022, or more than 53-million litres a day.

That is equivalent to the domestic water consumption of nearly 175,000 people in the US, according to the most recent estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

It is still much less than other industries, such as Uruguay’s key pulp and paper sector, but it poses a further strain on increasingly limited water supplies as climate change increases the frequency and severity of droughts.

Surging internet use in recent years has accelerated demand for new data centres around the world, increasing competition for land and raising concerns about the use of resources — including water.

Data centre growth is underpinned by the pandemic supercharging online and especially video activity, triggering a surge in Zoom calls, photo-sharing and social media use. Novel technologies such as artificial intelligence and autonomous driving could spur further expansion.

Google’s planned data centre in Canelones would power user requests for its array of internet services, such as YouTube, Gmail and Search.

Initial plans for the facility envisaged using of 7.6-million litres of water a day, according to information obtained by Pena after a freedom of information request last year.

That is equivalent to the daily water consumption of 55,000 people in Montevideo, a city of 1.4-million people. Most of the water used in cooling evaporates, meaning it can’t be retained for other uses.

Fabiana Molina, 50, who runs a soup kitchen that offers meals to children in the poor Nuevo Comienzo neighbourhood just outside the capital, said she feared the poor would bear the brunt of growing competition for limited water resources.

“The 7.6-million litres that Google will use are 7.6-million squandered,” she said.

Uruguay’s industry ministry said Google had withdrawn the original project and it was now working with an alternative plan that would use less energy and water.

A Google official said the project is still in the “exploratory phase” and must undergo environmental approval, for which final figures may differ from initial estimates.

Global opposition

The pushback against Google’s plans in Uruguay comes as opposition to data centres around the world grows — from Europe to the US and elsewhere in Latin America.

In Chile, local residents and authorities filed a formal complaint against Google's second planned data centre at the country’s environmental court in 2020, prompting Google to commit to adopting alternative cooling methods. But the project remains on hold.

A data centre project planned by Microsoft in Quilicura, near Google’s existing Chilean facility, has encountered similar opposition, delaying the approvals process after the local community raised concerns about its potential impact on an ecosystem already suffering from dry weather.

The project, however, is moving forward as the US company undergoes the environmental permitting process. An additional amendment, in which Microsoft committed not to draw water from nearby sources, led to approval from most local public bodies.

Tech companies highlight the positive economic impact of data centres. Google said its Chilean data centre required a $290m investment and helped boost GDP.

When Google announced in 2018 it would invest an additional $140m to expand it, then President Sebastian Pinera hailed it as showing Chile was part of the “fourth Industrial Revolution”.

But critics say data centres create few jobs and give little back in exchange for the resources they use, compounding public anger as water scarcity affects daily life.

At her home in El Tobogan, a slum area on the outskirts of Montevideo, pensioner Lita Leite, 67, said she had to use salty water to prepare her mate, a traditional infused herbal drink drank widely in parts of South America.

“It was extremely foul-tasting ... [but] for me, it was impossible to afford bottled water daily,” said Leite. She accused Lacalle Pou’s conservative government of having “handed over control of our natural water”.

“Big companies take millions of litres of water yearly, but it seems like we Uruguayans have lost our rights,” she said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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