The Hidden Cost of AI: How Every Query Contributes to Water Scarcity

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The Hidden Cost of AI: How Every Query Contributes to Water Scarcity


In our digitally-driven world, artificial intelligence (AI) has become an integral part of our daily lives, from voice assistants and recommendation algorithms to chatbots and language models. We often use AI systems without realizing the environmental impact they may have. A recent study conducted by the University of California, Riverside, sheds light on a concerning aspect of AI technology: its hidden water footprint. Each time you run a ChatGPT artificial intelligence query, you unknowingly contribute to the depletion of our already overstressed freshwater resources.

The Water Footprint of AI

The research from the University of California, Riverside, has revealed a startling fact: running AI queries that rely on cloud computations in data processing centers consumes significant amounts of freshwater resources. With every 20 to 50 queries, approximately half a liter (around 17 ounces) of fresh water is lost in the form of steam emissions. This might not seem like much on an individual basis, but the cumulative impact of billions of AI queries worldwide is a cause for concern.

Data processing centers, where AI computations take place, require large amounts of electricity to power the servers and keep them cool. This electricity is often generated using steam-generating power plants, which are major consumers of freshwater. Moreover, on-site chillers are used to maintain the servers' optimal temperature, consuming even more water. In essence, AI's computational demands indirectly contribute to water loss by driving the energy needs of these facilities.

Google's Water Consumption

One glaring example of this issue comes from Google, one of the world's largest tech giants. In 2021, Google's data centers in the United States alone consumed an estimated 12.7 billion liters of fresh water to cool their servers. This staggering water usage occurred at a time when droughts were exacerbating climate change, making freshwater even scarcer.

The Impact on Water Scarcity

The depletion of freshwater resources is a pressing global concern. Overexploitation of freshwater reserves leads to droughts, water scarcity, and ecosystem damage. It exacerbates climate change and affects agricultural and industrial processes, which rely heavily on water. AI's contribution to water scarcity adds another layer to this complex problem.

Solutions and Responsibility

Addressing the water footprint of AI requires a multi-faceted approach involving individuals, tech companies, and policymakers. Here are some steps that can be taken:

1. Efficiency Improvements: Tech companies should invest in more efficient data processing centers and cooling systems to reduce their water consumption.

2. AI Optimization: Develop more efficient AI algorithms that require fewer computational resources, thus reducing the energy and water needed for AI queries.

3. User Awareness: Educate users about the environmental impact of their AI queries and encourage responsible usage.

4. Regulation: Governments can implement regulations and incentives to encourage sustainable practices in data processing centers.

5. Water Recycling: Explore technologies for recycling and reusing water within data processing centers.


The water footprint of AI is an alarming consequence of our increasing reliance on artificial intelligence. While AI offers numerous benefits, it is essential to recognize its environmental impact and take action to mitigate it. By optimizing AI algorithms, improving data center efficiency, and promoting responsible AI usage, we can reduce the strain on our freshwater resources and contribute to a more sustainable future. It's time to make informed choices and ensure that the digital technologies we use do not come at the cost of our planet's most precious resource: fresh water.

AI programs consume large volumes of scarce water UCR study finds that keeping servers powered and cool at cloud data processing centers has high water costs

Making AI Less Thirsty: Uncovering and Addressing the Secret Water Footprint of AI Models

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