AI Is Accelerating the Loss of Our Scarcest Natural Resource: Water

AI Is Accelerating the Loss of Our Scarcest Natural Resource: Water


Water covers 70% of mother earth, and it is our most essential and important ingredient to survive – for all living things. However, freshwater- what we need to drink, irrigate our farms is only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and most people don’t also understand that over two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers, and is simply unavailable for consumption.

In some organisms, up to 90% of their body weight comes from water. Did you know that 60% of an adult human body is water. A baby is nearly 80%.

Each day, we must consume water to survive. An adult adult male needs about 3 liters (3.2 quarts) per day while an adult female needs about 2.2 liters (2.3 quarts) per day.

As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. Inadequate sanitation is also a problem for 2.4 billion people—they are exposed to diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever, and other water-borne illnesses. Two million people, mostly children, die each year from diarrheal diseases alone.

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According to the United Nations Environmental Report, nearly two-thirds of our world’s population experiences severe water shortages for at least one month a year, and by 2030, this gap is predicted to become much worse, with almost half of the world’s population facing severe water stress. To avoid this fate, the report said, water use must be “decoupled” from economic growth by developing policies and technologies to reduce or maintain consumption without compromising performance.”

The necessity for water if fundamental to our ability to live. However, we have a major problem and its accelerating.

At the same time, we have our world racing ahead at an enormous pace to advance AI into every aspect of our world, business, leisure, every process, every industry is building AI enablements -and are we carefully thinking through the environmental impacts with thoughtful integrative and ethical design principles.

With the rise of generative AI, companies like: Alibaba, Amazon, Google, IBM, Meta, Microsoft, Nividia, Salesforce, SAP, have all significantly raised their water usage, sparking concerns about the sustainability of such practices amid global freshwater scarcity and climate change challenges.

Tech Giants have significantly increased their water needs for cooling data centers due to the escalating demand for online services and generative AI products. AI server cooling consumes significant water, with data centers using cooling towers and air mechanisms to dissipate heat, causing up to 9 liters of water to evaporate per kWh of energy used.

The U.S. relies on water-intensive thermoelectric plants for electricity, indirectly increasing data centers’ water footprint, with an average of 43.8L/kWh withdrawn for power generation.

Wafer fabrication demands high water usage with low recycling rates, contributing to the supply-chain water footprint with limited transparency on actual usage data.

Companies like Microsoft, Google, and Meta are vowing to mitigate their environmental impact by aiming to replenish more water than they consume by 2030 through various ecological projects.

Is this really believable – its sounds good but how when we don’t have enough water

Already AI’s projected water usage could hit 6.6 billion m³ by 2027, signalling a need to tackle its water footprint.

Conclusion

Rising water use in data centers is very concerning due to the incredible global freshwater scarcity we have. As CEO’s and Board Directors, investing in AI, please reflect on these three questions – its cause for pause.

1.) What is the impact of your AI strategy on water consumption, and how are you planning to replenish what you are draining from mother earth?

2.) Will your investments in AI, create more social problems than benefits?

3.) Have you quantified the social risks in your AI investment business cases and is your board involved in reviewing the stakeholder and brand reputation risks to your ESG goals?

This situation reminds me of systems thinking theories as pushing on one dimension of change only ripples to another area causing more risk and potentially greater risks.

Holistic thinking that is integrated is key to advance AI with corporate purpose. Our Tech Titans have opened the AI pandora’s box and this is not stopping any time soon – how we ethically take more social responsibility – remains to be seen.

We know we have not been role model in advancing and stalling climatic change —- and the warming of our planet – now as we are accelerating the risks of water consumption – this will require more regulation and scrutiny.

In reviewing the EU act, USA AI Act, and Canada’s AIDA, creating the environmental water protection guard rails on AI did not appear to be integrated in our design thinking – I may have missed some linkages but it strikes me we are focusing more on classifying high risk applications and regulating job impacts vs environmental impacts.

Perhaps its time to integrate clearer envrionmental regulations on AI water consumption needs.

Research Sources:

AI Secret Newsletter, February 25th, 2023.

Mitchell, H.H., Hamilton, T.S., Steggerda, F.R., and Bean, H.W., 1945, The chemical composition of the adult human body and its bearing on the biochemistry of growth: Journal of Biological Chemistry, v. 158, issue 3, p. 625-637.

The Nature of Water: Environment Canada

United Nations Environmental Program Report. See report

Water Scarcity Blog. See source.



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