02 Sep 2021 | 02:51 PM
According to a recent post in the Facebook Newsroom, the company is planning to reach water positivity by 2030 by introducing several new water restoration and conservation projects across all its business hubs and data centres.
This could not have come at a better time since water scarcity has been classified as the fifth largest resource shortage by the World Economic Forum. According to reporting by Forbes, the first-ever water cuts have just been declared for the Colorado River in the United States. The area is facing a historic drought resulting in the US federal government declaring a water shortage, triggering water consumption cuts in the Southwest.
So, what is water positivity and how does a company achieve it?
Water positivity is when you return more water to the environment than you consume. But Facebook is a social media and tech giant, so how and why is water positivity such a big deal?
Well, social media companies need the following in great quantities — employees, electricity, and data storage facilities. Employees, being human, need to consume water to survive. Electricity — well, that’s just because these companies use powerful computers, and are almost 100% air-conditioned. Data storage facilities or serves because where else will you store a trillion GB of data? Now, most data centres are liquid-cooled and consume huge volumes of water to keep the searing server temperatures in check. To understand what we’re talking about, touch the bottom of your laptop, and see how warm it gets after three hours of continuous usage. Facebook data servers work thousands of times hard, faster— and —hotter.
The Company Policy
The American social media company is pretty serious about the business of saving water. Facebook's sustainability water lead, Sylvia Lee, explained that the company "has always strived to responsibly manage how we use water resources in the communities we operate in".
"We follow a water stewardship strategy that focuses on sourcing water responsibly, driving water efficiency across our facilities and operations, as well as investing in critical water restoration projects in the same watersheds where our facilities are located," she wrote. "Now, we're going even further and pledging to be water positive by 2030, meaning we will restore more water than we consume."
Facebook has already started to take big strides towards becoming an energy-efficient outfit. The company has shifted to 100% renewable electricity last year, and as part of their water restoration efforts, has started to transition their cooling systems to use outside air as the primary coolant. Facebook claims that these air-based systems are already 80% more water-efficient than the global average.
Water recycling is another direction that the company believes will help restore water levels. The company has identified water-stressed regions in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, with other international locations in India, the United Kingdom and Mexico to be added to the list soon. Water stewardship — a process of monitoring the use and minimizing the wastage of water has become a key element of Facebook’s expansion plans. As a result of their efforts, the company has saved 1.5 billion litres of water in the data centres and offices alone.
A great example is the Fort Worth office. It’s in Texas, one of the hottest states in the United States. While landscaping, the company decided to use a new native turf grass that requires very little water and maintenance. This solution was quickly adapted to the 15 other data centres. Now, they only use native turfgrass species because these plants have biologically adapted to high temperatures and require up to 75% less water for landscaping and irrigation. The new technique has saved 12 million litres of water.
Greener Grass, More Water
In 2019, the company used the Menlo Park, California HQ as a test case for a water recycling and treatment system developed with AquaCell. The project called for the use of an MBR, or a Membrane Bioreactor, a unit that used ultraviolet filtration, UV disinfection, chlorine residual protection, reverse osmosis, and biological treatment to create a close-ended water system. The system used two kinds of water as input. The first is greywater, which came from hand washbasins and surface irrigations. The second is blackwater, which is drained water from toilets, bathrooms, and kitchens. Both types of water went into the MBR, which treated and recycled the water, making sure not a single drop was wasted. The state-of-the-art recycling system has saved over 16 million gallons of water annually since 2019. Even more encouraging is the fact that local authorities are using it as a building block for a district-wide water treatment program.
While water recycling may help reduce Facebook’s consumption, the water stewardship and restoration projects will have the most impact. Because of rampant fishing, irrigation and industrial processing, water levels across the world’s rivers have started to plummet. Using hydrology and geological analyses, the effects of overconsumption can be reversed. Water restoration is in direct compliance with Goal 6 in the list of the 17 United Nations’ SDGs. Using techniques like floodplain and wetland restoration, reforestation, re-channelling reused water, and leasing water rights, Facebook has almost changed the course of rivers. Some projects are showing a 200% rise in water flow, a return of the native bird and fish species, and an improvement in air quality. A good example is the restoration work being carried out on the Rio Grande River. The efforts have already resulted in a return of 20 million gallons annually since the project kicked off in 2018.
Facebook’s water conservation and recycling efforts have saved 595 million gallons of water in 2020. The company has set a target of saving 850 million gallons of water annually. By UN estimates, one-third of the population – of more than 2.5 billion people - are currently inhabiting water-stressed regions and nations. It is estimated that water scarcity could displace 700 million people by the early 2030s. Facebook’s water projects are but a drop in the ocean, but a welcome one.
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