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The crisis is climatic and environmental. It is about renouncing the politics of our decision-makers, as it is about rejecting colonial extractivism on a burning planet. Isn't the climate crisis just another sign of the pathetic fate of liberal democracies in the hands of powerful transnational corporations?

Uruguay is a striking example. Latin American neighbours always think of this small country (destined, it seems, never to reach 4 million inhabitants) as a state project that has been able to build solid democratic institutions that have brought prosperity and well-being to its population. In 2004, Uruguay became the world’s first country to declare access to clean water a constitutional right. If the climate crisis was to be unleashed violently – a destiny that seems unavoidable – there was a very long line of countries in the region before Uruguay.

But this year, Montevideo, its capital, ran out of drinking water. Chile, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and a long list of countries in Latin America have been suffering for years and warning of the dangers of historic droughts caused by the climate crisis. Uruguay was not on this list, as it has always been considered a country with plentiful water resources, even though, for some time now, it had been going through a period of unusual drought and is now in the middle of its severest drought in 74 years. So distant was the possibility of a water crisis that its own authorities looked favourably on the installation of a mega data centre of Alphabet, the US company behind Google, in the Uruguayan department [province] of Canelones. Following record-breaking temperatures and low rainfall seasons, a state of emergency has been declared in Montevideo and more than half the country is without access to tap water fit for drinking. Seawater from an estuary is being added to public drinking water supplies, resulting in double the levels of sodium and chlorides recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), prompting widespread protests.

The problem is that, as many researchers have pointed out, data centres need enormous amounts of fresh water – about 7.6 million litres of water a day by some estimates – to feed the cooling systems of delicate equipment that must work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that internet services are always available to us, with almost no delays. In a not insignificant detail, companies like Alphabet consider the use of freshwater by their data centres to be a corporate secret, which makes it impossible for the inhabitants of the areas where these infrastructures – the basis for the digitalisation of the planet – are installed to know how their access to water will be affected.

Moreover, although big tech companies such as Alphabet and Microsoft have begun to compete on their sustainability credentials, and both have been reporting environmental metrics for several years, neither company attributes its water consumption to data centres, and their figures only look at direct water use, ignoring the water resources used in electricity generation, the most significant contributor to a data centre's water footprint. They also do not disaggregate the water source, which has proved controversial when competing for potable sources under water stress. And there is no industry standardisation of the categories to be reported and how they are registered. Without clarity on the source of the information, its methodology, and disaggregated results, it is impossible for external parties, whether governmental, academic or community, to verify the data reported by these companies.

With the Alphabet mega data centre in Uruguay, history repeated itself with one crucial exception: justice applying of the Escazú Treaty (the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean) in favour of the inhabitants.

In July 2022, Daniel Pena, a researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of the Republic (Udelar) in Uruguay, submitted a request for access to public information to the Uruguayan Ministry of the Environment (ME), seeking to know the impact on both water and electricity consumption of the mega data centre that Alphabet planned to build.

The process dragged on: first the authorities extended the deadlines, and then Pena was informed that the data was confidential and could not be provided as it would violate agreements with Alphabet, claiming "commercial secrecy". This exception is contemplated in the Uruguayan law itself, but according to Pena's lawyer, Carolina Neme, it could not be applied in this case: "Although there are exceptions, we consider that in this case, as it is a water issue and water is declared a fundamental human right by our Constitution, the information had to be provided."

Initially, the court ruled in Pena’s favour and obliged the ministry to provide the information. The ME appealed the ruling stating that "the right of access to information, beyond being enshrined at the national and international level, does not constitute an absolute right" and that "the mere fact that reference is made to water-related information does not entitle any person to obtain it".

On appeal, the court again ruled in favour of the researcher earlier this year. "It is the national Constitution itself which, through the spirit of its article 47, emphasizes what should be preferred: the provision of all information on the intended volume of an essential resource for life, such as water, should be put before the economic interests which, in the case of the defendant portfolio, it seeks to defend on the grounds of industrial or commercial secrecy, or the grounds of confidentiality. This is the most respectful interpretation of the will of the Constituent, which is none other than the People," it stated.

The Court of Appeal further noted that "any declaration of confidentiality of information" related to the use of water "is not legitimate" because "it does not correspond to obligations that the country assumes in terms of human rights ... The public administration should, in principle, be inclined to provide any inhabitant of the Republic, especially when it appears to be scientifically and seriously justified, with information on the volume of water that could be involved in the operation of a private company."

This important ruling also states that that denying information is "the opposite" of what is established in the Escazú Agreement, which Uruguay ratified in 2021 and which obliges countries to guarantee justice, transparency and participation in environmental matters. "It is important to point out that water is a good of public domain and interest. It does not belong to the State, to a government, to a company, or even to individuals. It belongs to each and every inhabitant of the Republic. Therefore, to have access to all information concerning water and its use, to know how it is disposed of or what volumes are used for whatever purpose, is also a human right. Therefore, every inhabitant of the Republic is entitled to know what is being done with it, as well as in what quantities it is intended to be done with it by private parties." 

However, despite this ruling, the information provided by the ME is still incomplete. Pena stated that after the trial, they were given a document with half a sheet of information regarding the water expenditure that would be used only for Alphabet’s data centre cooling towers. It is still unknown whether they will actually use more drinking water. Furthermore, there are no details on what will happen when there are heat waves or periods of drought, such as the one Uruguay has been experiencing these few months.

The controversy over this data centre in Uruguay came just months before Montevideo ran out of water and its inhabitants have had to turn to bottled water. There is no doubt that the big question is: how can it be that the authorities behind this mega infrastructure agreed to deny public information when the level of water crisis is so evident? Or is the economic investment of foreign technology companies a carte blanche for everything? Will citizens’ access to water depend only on the corporate responsibility of such companies?

This brings us to the classic problem of globalised capitalism in which multinational companies are established in territories where they do not belong and where there is no cultural or sentimental bond, but only a purely commercial and/or extractivist relationship. There, the only forms of accountability are those required by law – if there is a law – and, of course, if there is no authority that, motivated by investment and/or corruption, breaks the law.

The Uruguayan case should open deep conversations in the continent, especially given the economic, political and cultural power of technological actors: what status should we give to water in deploying digital projects? We must urgently work to discard the idea that water is a second-class resource in the sustainability of digital technologies. Rethinking the status of water in digital technologies is urgent in Latin America if we want to avoid social conflict and, of course, survive on a radically different planet.


Image: "Canelón Grande Dam during the drought" by Enxuta – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Paz Peña ( is an author and researcher working at the intersection between digital technologies, feminism, and social justice. She created the Latin American Institute of Terraforming, a space for understanding the varied relationships between digital technology and the climate crisis. expression. She is the author of “Tecnologías para un planeta en llamas” (Paidós, 2023).