Photograph by Spencer Lowell / Trunk Archive

In Hawaii, Water Is Life—And It’s in Danger

WORDS BY AMBER X. CHEN

Before the military and tourism sectors began exploiting Hawaii’s water resources, Native people were caring for them. The Frontline explains how the islands can look to the past to build a better future.

“Wai” means water in the Native Hawaiian language. It is repeated twice—“waiwai”—to mean wealth. The Native people of Hawaii understand water is life. And, indeed, water feeds life as it streams through Hawaii’s beautiful tropical landscape. The volcanic islands are home to over 26,000 species, gorgeous beaches, and emerald mountains

 

Now, thanks to the U.S. military and overtourism, the people of Hawaii are facing one of the largest water crises they have ever seen. Navy fuel contamination has severely threatened their water supply, posing dangerous health risks, while the tourism sector guzzles water as usual. Climate change is poised to exacerbate the situation even further. As wet areas become wetter and dry areas drier, aquifers are struggling to consistently absorb freshwater.

 

The problem is worsening now, but it dates back almost a century. During World War II, the Navy built the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility near Honolulu to keep fuel safe underground from potential aerial attacks. The facility stores 20 tanks, each nearly 25 stories high, that together can hold up to a quarter-million gallons of fuel. Red Hill also precariously sits only 100 feet above Oahu’s sole source aquifer that hundreds of thousands rely on. Since at least 2014, the Navy has reported leaks at the facility.

 

On Dec. 1, 2021, former Oahu resident and Navy veteran Aedyn-Rhys King was informed by his housing management that his water was safe and unaffected by a recent Red Hill fuel leak. The very next day, however, King’s nephew took a shower before work and had to be rushed to the emergency room by the time he arrived at his job because his whole body was swollen. King didn’t think much about it initially, for he and his family had just been told by management—which was told by the Navy—that their water was safe. Then the next day, his fiancé developed a rash, chest pains, and diarrhea after taking a shower.

 

“She was actually puking, so she went to the emergency room,” King said. “And that’s when we were starting to put two and two together.”

 

Since its founding, Red Hill has leaked an estimated 180,000 gallons of jet fuel. Meanwhile, the Navy and complicit state representatives repeatedly advocated to keep the tanks in operation. Only after a 14,000-gallon leak in November—the one that affected King’s family—did the situation finally reach a breaking point.

 

On March 7, the Department of Defense announced it would shut down Red Hill—but not before lying to community members about the state of their water and harming thousands (even military forces, many of whom were displaced from their homes for lack of clean water). Although people had been expressing concerns about the facility for years, the decision was largely the result of a months-long effort from Shut Down Red Hill, a campaign mainly facilitated by the grassroots organization O’ahu Water Protectors.

“We had no garbage dumps. We had no pollution. We had a very sustainable way of life.”

Healani Sonoda-Pale
O’ahu water protector

However, shutting down Red Hill won’t happen overnight, so affected families may continue to suffer from fuel-laden water. Thus, the work of the O’ahu Water Protectors and other advocates alike is far from done. The military’s negligence of the Red Hill leak has prompted an interrogation of Hawaii’s history of colonialism—and how that history now manifests in a dominant military presence on the islands, threatening their water systems in more ways than one.

 

The Hawaiian Kingdom—formally recognized in 1843—was the first truly Indigenous-run, independent sovereign state recognized by global players. The Native Hawaiian people modeled their entire society around wai, their source of wealth. The Hawaiian Kingdom’s systems of governance mirrored the water cycle in creating circular and sustainable resource management structures via regenerative agriculture and aquaculture systems. 

 

“[The Hawaiian Kingdom] supported nearly a million people,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, chair of the Native initiative for self-determination Ka Lāhui Hawai’i and O’ahu water protector. “We had no garbage dumps. We had no pollution. We had a very sustainable way of life. We knew how to manage our resources, how to grow food, how to distribute food, and how to manage water.”

 

Everything changed after corporate interests and a U.S.-led coup in 1893 stripped the Hawaiian people of their independence. Five years later, the U.S. formally annexed the nation through a joint resolution passed by Congress. As a result, water was treated as a commodity by the sugar industry until 1978 when the state returned water back into the public trust. Since 1987, the state’s Commission on Wastewater Resource Management has been responsible for managing water resources. Among its initiatives has been restoring streams once dried out by plantations, but there is still a long way to go before people can trust the government again. 

 

“The military’s negligence of our water was a tremendous assault on our public trust,” said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, professor of Hawaiian studies at University of Hawaii at Manoa who also served eight years on the commission. “Even though we have these mandates in place, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad actors. Red Hill is the prime example of that.”

 

Another example is the tourism industry. While the industry has historically been free to use as much water as it likes in Hawaii—even though tourists can use up significantly more water than locals—residents have faced water mandates during times of short supply in which non-essential activities could result in a $500 fine. In response to Red Hill, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply has urged businesses and government agencies to reduce their water usage by 10%. Tourism has effectively turned the islands into a playground for the rich while Native people make up nearly 40% of the houseless population and occupy one of the lowest socioeconomic tiers.

 

“Tourism is one of the biggest industries in Hawaii, and it’s an industry that is actually supported by taxpayer dollars,” Sonoda-Pale said. “But what do we get back from tourism? It is not equal to what we put in.”

“This is our homeland. We have no plans of leaving here.”

Healani Sonoda-Pale
O’ahu water protector

Tourism makes up about a quarter of Hawaii’s economy, but the sector has historically been dominated by multinational corporations that are based elsewhere. In addition, tourism sucks up Hawaii’s resources: the industry accounts for about 21.7% of the Big Island of Hawaii’s total energy consumption, 44.7% of its water consumption, and 10.7% of its waste generation. Tourism has also faced backlash for exploiting the state’s culture, which the late activist and educator Haunani-Kay Trask described as “cultural prostitution.” 

 

“Anybody working in the tourist industry has to work two, three jobs to basically make a decent living in Hawaii,” Sonoda-Pale said. “It’s amazing to me that they are kind of continuing on as business as usual. They’re not even trying to cut back on all those pools, waterfalls, and golf courses. The industry is going to suck us dry, and residents are paying the price.”

 

Now, climate change has emerged as another threat to Hawaii’s water supply, tracing its roots to colonialism as well. With the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 came deforestation of native forests in order to make room for the sugar cash crop industry. This meant the removal of an essential upland system, which captured fog drift in the mountains to feed freshwater down into Hawaii’s aquifers. Without native forests, there’s no release of water into the atmosphere from the plants and, thus, the islands grow drier. In addition, freshwater can take years to seep through the substrate and reach the aquifer.

 

“The reality of what we’re seeing is not just wet areas getting wetter, and dry areas getting drier—it’s that the intensity and the duration is drastically changing,” said Beamer of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “When I was a kid, I remember there would be rainfall almost every night. There was a continuous recharge of the aquifer. What we’re seeing now is these vast periods of drought, and then these really intense periods of rainfall.”

 

A lack of consistent rainfall coupled with the loss of native forests hinders the recharging of the aquifers. In Hawaii, a climate-resilient future may look like stormwater capture and reforested landscapes. For many Native Hawaiian communities, the future should also look a lot like the past—where regenerative systems dominate, circular economies are adopted, and water is truly valued as wealth.

 

“This is our homeland,” Sonoda-Pale said. “We have no plans of leaving here. In fact, it’s a very Indigenous way of thinking that everything we do now is for our children and our grandchildren. That is why this crisis weighs very heavily on us: because this is where our children will be, where our grandchildren will be. Thousands of years we’ve been here, and we plan to be here for thousands more.”

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