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The Gulf is all-in on AI, but it’s thirsty work for a desert region

AI data centres in themselves can use vast amounts of scarce water for cooling

An engineer at the Najaf water treatment plant in Iraq. The Middle East needs to invest more in water treatment and not just desalination Reuters
An engineer at the Najaf water treatment plant in Iraq. The Middle East needs to invest more in water treatment and not just desalination

The Gulf is a global advocate of artificial intelligence and countries in the region are using the technology to support sustainability measures.

What, then, of the fact that AI data centres in themselves can use vast amounts of water for cooling, as well as rack up high energy usage?

In desert environs in particular, these systems require vast amounts of water for cooling. 

Google’s data centres in the US consumed an estimated 12.7 billion litres of fresh water in 2021 to keep the servers cool. The global additional demand for water used by AI data centres could increase to 4.2-6.4 billion cubic metres by 2027 –  equivalent to Denmark’s total water availability. 

There is a difference between water withdrawal and water consumption, however. 

Just because water is used to cool down data centres, this does not mean it is consumed. Only a tiny fraction of this water is consumed – or, in other words, evaporated. 

The agricultural sector is responsible for most water consumption, because of the colossal thirst of plants and biomass.

Agriculture withdraws about 70 percent of global water resources, industry withdraws another 20 percent and domestic users 10 percent.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN provides water data for almost all parts of the world. Some countries may have a stronger industry base; others may be relying on agriculture for economic output. However, water withdrawn by industry and domestic users can be treated and returned to the source.

Think of the water you use for showering. This dirty water can be treated by technology to increase its lifespan. Through such treatments, the actual consumptive use of water can be reduced to only 3 percent for domestic users and 4 percent for industry.

However, the agricultural sector still consumes a whopping 93 percent of its water.

The same is true for AI data centres. Their cooling waters can – and should – be treated for reuse. The regional tech industry should look to implement integrated systems that can desalinate water, pump it to AI data centres for cooling and then treat the water before it is sent to farms for irrigation. 

The promise of water treatment

The GCC is no stranger to desalination technology. Initiatives worth around $40 billion were reported as part of the Mena Desalination Projects Forum in 2023. Saudi Arabia and the UAE intend to invest $14 billion and $10 billion in desalination projects, respectively.

In 2020, the GCC countries were desalinating about 6.4 billion cubic metres of seawater a year. On the other hand, the region treated about 9.3 million cubic metres of wastewater in the same year. 

The Gulf would do well to learn from Singapore, which is one of the most water-secure countries. In the Asian city-state, desalinated water is mixed with groundwater and treated water (yes, that includes toilet water) and pumped through its urban pipes. 

Singaporean decision makers are so proud of their water that they fill bottles with it and offer it to residents and visitors alike. This has been made possible by the tech advancements of the past decades. In the modern age, almost all water can be recycled and reused unless it is heavily polluted by industry. 

In this context, the advancing AI sector could act as a stimulant for expanding the wastewater treatment market in the GCC.

One thing is certain: in the coming years, substantial additional water supply will be needed to meet the region’s desired AI goals. 

For this tech growth to be sustainable, the region will need to commit to treating its water.

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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