Google, and its parent company Alphabet, have come under fire from shareholders for failing to disclose how much water is used by its data centres.

At the company’s annual general meeting last week, 64 per cent of the company’s independent shareholders (22.6 per cent overall) voted to support a proposal put forward by shareholder advocacy group As You Sow, calling for more disclosure.

The proposal asks the global tech giant to disclose the amount of water used by each of its data centres globally, along with plans to reduce its water-related risks.

The issue is important, because computer data centres – large warehouses that are used to house computer servers, storage and networking equipment – can use vast amounts of water in their cooling and airconditioning systems to keep all their systems cool.

In the US, data centres are among the top 10 types of business facilities for water use. A typical data centre can use between 1.3 million to 2.2 million litres of water per day, according to Professor Venkatesh Uddameri, director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University.

In the case of Google, the number of servers it needs to host its numerous online services and apps, as well as store all its data, means it needs to operate a large number of data centres around the world.

Along with its own online services (such as its search engine, Google Docs, and YouTube), Google is estimated to be the world’s third biggest provider of outsourced cloud-based data centre services to other businesses.

According to Canalys figures released in April, Google Cloud holds an 8 per cent share of the global enterprise cloud market, trailing Amazon’s AWS (33 per cent) and Microsoft Azure (21 per cent).

This means that the hidden embedded water and energy used by Google’s services, through its facilities, also impact on countless other businesses, governments and universities.

A number of leading tech companies, including Microsoft and IBM, disclose their water use to the Carbon Disclosure Project. That includes the percentage of water used by its facilities in areas with water stress.

In contrast, Google claims the amount of water used at specific facilities, and its water use agreements with local governments, are a trade secret. It has not provided any recent data around of water it uses at specific facilities, and what risks this poses.

This attitude is in sharp contrast to what the company claimed in its 2021 Water Stewardship Report, where the company claimed to be “committed to being responsible stewards” of water, including a goal to “replenish more water than we consume by 2030”.

“Google will replenish 120 per cent of the water we consume, on average, across our offices and data centres and help restore and improve the quality of water and health of ecosystems in the communities where we operate.”

Google has also claimed that public officials can’t disclose how much water it uses, and may not respond to public record act requests seeking information about its actual and proposed water use. This behaviour has led to lawsuits, ill-will, and reputational damage. 

“Alphabet’s need for water resources is becoming increasingly contentious and fraught with risk due to drought, declining groundwater levels, and competing water demands,” As You Sow president Danielle Fugere said. 

“By refusing to disclose water use metrics to the public, Alphabet is losing the trust of its investors and the communities in which it operates.”

Tech industry peers Microsoft and IBM report to CDP on water use and water risk, including disclosing the percent of water withdrawn from areas with water stress. 

A Google spokesperson told The Fifth Estate the company has published a blog about the company’s commitment to water stewardship. (The blog does not appear to have a breakdown of how much water each of its data centres uses.)

“Our commitment to water stewardship is to replenish 120 per cent of the water we consume, on average, across our offices and data centres by 2030,” the spokesperson said.

UPDATED 9 July at 18:32 AEST to add a statement from Google.

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