U.S tech giants are building dozens of huge data centers in Chile. Locals are fighting back

Earlier this month, as Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced the arrival of 28 new data centers in the country, Rodrigo Vallejos watched the livestream with skepticism.

Even as Boric assured that investment in these buildings would be “environmentally responsible,” Vallejos had his doubts. After all, he has spent the past two years monitoring data centers in Chile — including those operated by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft — and found them to have a significant impact on water supply in the country. Since 2022, Vallejos has been one of the leading activists filing citizen observations regarding Microsoft’s new data center in Santiago’s metropolitan area.

Vallejos awning Rest of World that he and other activists are pushing for environmental compensation, and transparency around the water and energy consumption of each data center, among other requests.

Chile’s government has turned the capital city of Santiago and its metropolitan area into one of the biggest data center hubs in Latin America by bringing in new investment through free trade agreements. According to Boric’s public statement, there are 22 data centers in the country, 16 of which have been approved for construction in Santiago’s metropolitan area since 2012. Worried about the spread of these water-guzzling buildings amid an ongoing drought, locals like Vallejos have been pushing back. Rest of World spoke with local residents, environmental experts, and members of three activist groups who have squared off against U.S. tech giants in an attempt to stop new centers from being built and demand more environmental accountability from the companies behind them.

It’s turned into extractivism,” said Tania Rodríguez, a member of the Socio Environmental Community Movement for Land and Water (Mosacat), an activist organization. “We end up being everybody’s backyard.”

The latest front of local resistance is Amazon’s proposed data center in Huechuraba, a district in Santiago’s metropolitan area. In 2023, after the company filed environmental documentation for its second data center in Chile, a group of people filed almost 50 observations with the country’s Environmental Impact Evaluation System (SEIA) — run by the Environmental Evaluation Service (SEA), a public organization that reviews environmental impact in order to approve projects. Amazon’s legal representative asked the SEA to extend its April deadline to address these observations, and submitted its response this week.

According to the SEA website, environmental impact declarations — during which citizen observations can be filed — are reviewed by environmental state bodies.

On average, a small data center building that uses a regular water-based cooling system and consumes 1 megawatt requires about 25 million liters of water every year to keep its computers from overheating. Some of the world’s largest data centers require more than 100MW to operate. Chile has registered a national droughtwith historically low levels of rain, since 2010.

The companies “use water, dry up the territory, but don’t give anything back to the population,” Vicente Bardales, a member of the Quilicura Socio Environmental Resistance group, told Rest of World. Quilicura, on the northwestern edge of Santiago’s metropolitan region, is home to Google’s data center. A Microsoft data center is expected to be constructed in the next two years.

Google opened its first Latin American center in Chile in 2015. The country “has the ideal combination of trustworthy infrastructure, well-trained personnel and the commitment to a transparent and favorable regulation for businesses,” Google explained on its website. The company was also drawn to Quilicura as it provided “good access to road networks, as well as water and electricity,” Investments and Services Dataluna Limited, Google’s support entity providing IT-facility management in Chile, said in its declaration of the project’s environmental impact to the SEIA in December 2014.

According to official documents seen by Rest of Worldby 2018, this data center was authorized to extract 50 liters of water per second from underground wells — more than 1 billion liters per year.

In 2019, Google announced its plan to build a second data center across town. Rodríguez said she and Mosacat activists went through all of the company’s documentation, and realized the new center was going to use about twice the volume of water as Quilicura. In 2020, according to official documents from the SEIA, Google’s second data center was authorized to extract 228 liters of water per second — more than 7 billion liters annually.

Mosacat activists staged a series of demonstrations between 2019 and 2023. In response, Santiago’s environmental tribunal looked into the project. Earlier this year, the tribunal suspended the project until Google reassessed its environmental impact.

Google’s case was paradigmatic, according to Marina Otero Verzier, an architect and visiting professor at Columbia University, whose research focuses on data centers worldwide. The ruling sent “a clear message,” she told Rest of World. “Data centers have an ecological impact in the context of a climatic crisis.”

Activists meanwhile rekindled their efforts against other data centers that had already received environmental approval or were in the process of getting it.

In 2020, Microsoft announced its plan to build a $317-million data center. Vallejos and other activists filed several requests asking the company how the building would affect one of the region’s largest water reserves; 118 reports about citizen concerns related to the project were added to Microsoft’s SEIA file.

Microsoft was misleading, said Vallejos. When the company made more information about the project public, it claimed it would have a cooling system that would eliminate the need to use water for more than half a year. In documents submitted to the SEIA and seen by Rest of Worldhowever, Microsoft specified that its cooling system would rely partially on water.

Microsoft’s environmental approval was granted in early 2023and the center is currently under construction. It is estimated to become fully operational in 2026, according to SEIA documents.

Microsoft and Google did not respond to a request for comment from Rest of World.

An Amazon Web Services spokesperson told Rest of World the company has complied with all the requirements of the Declaration of Environmental Impact (DIA), a self-assessed declaration about the project’s environmental impact, for its Padre Hurtado and Huechuraba data centers. The spokesperson also stated that the company is committed to giving back more water than the amount it uses in its direct operations globally by 2030 to the communities in which it operates.

According to a public statement by Valentina Durán, executive director of the SEA, there’s an approval rate of 94% for environmental evaluations.

One of those is Amazon’s first center in the country, which received environmental clearance earlier this year and is set to open in 2025.

Pushback against data centers has been fragmented by neighborhood, but some activists plan on presenting a united front in the face of Boric’s announcement. Their fight has one main objective: stricter legislation.

Locals say the companies behind data centers should be required to submit a more robust environmental impact study — known as EIA — that includes a description of the actions they will take to impede or minimize the significantly adverse effects.

Some companies have attempted to make environmental reparations in Chile. After it built its first data center, Google announced it would invest in planting a forest to offset its air pollution — though not its high water consumption. The Google Urban Forest was inaugurated in 2019 in Quilicura, about 16.5 kilometers (10 miles) from Santiago’s city center.

The project is run by the municipal authorities, Google, and Cultiva, an environmental and reforestation organization. Claudio Saavedra de la Barra, the coordinator for Cultiva’s reforestation program, told Rest of World about 1,600 local species have been planted in the 2.6-hectare park — mostly waist-high, dry trees and shrubs — which is closed to visitors. Calling it an interesting pilot project, he said that a larger forest was probably needed to offset the amount of pollution emitted by Google’s data center.

The forest created a new wooded area in a region that was previously deserted and full of trash, Saavedra de la Barra said.

According to Otero Verzier, these types of projects could eventually be a way to hold companies accountable for the damage they wreck on the environment. “But this forest is dry … It’s not the most adequate way to do so,” she said.

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