Note to the reader: This piece will follow with a glossary for the translations and colloquial understanding of various Hawaiian words. It is my intention to challenge English as the assumed language and honor the language born of place and context.
Hoʻi hou ka iʻa i ke ʻehu kai
The fish returns to the foamy sea
Said of one who returns to a previous home
or former habit1
Wind, rain, sea
And plantation have carved you
Desirable to developer.
Washed on your pebbled shore
A doomed vessel turned on its side,
Nails rust in salt air,
An example of things to come.
— excerpt from “Mahaʻulepu”
by Tamara Wong-Morrison
In ʻolelo Hawaiʻi, wai means water but it also means the essence of life. Wai refers to freshwater places, streams, and rivers, which all eventually connect out to the salty sea. Paired with the winds, this cycle gives way to the rains, the mists, the pools, and all of the surrounding lifeforms. As a known kino lau of the god Kane, wai carved its path through the land and life was born of it. From the sinuous streams to one’s coursing blood, wai is the liquid of all life flowing.
The Sacred Waters
The ancestors of the land on which I was born and currently reside have over 500 names for rain. The Kānaka Maoli are a people of deep connection to land, sea, and all things between, but rain invokes a special familiarity. Collette Leimomi Akana writes, “[Our kupuna] knew when a particular rain would fall, its color, duration, intensity, the path it would take, the sound it made on the trees, the scent it carried, and the effect it had on people.”2
This understanding of the shape-shifting nature of water holds a sacred relationship intact. Each stream recharges the watershed and underground aquifers by passing over the earth. The rock beds and plant life both hold and slow this water, allowing it the time it needs to seep deep into the underground. Aquifers bridge springs to the surface and the cycle continues.
However, modern society has destroyed the pathways laid out by the water’s own agency. These waterways were drained and replaced with ports, power facilities, hotels, military bases, and roads all in favor of profit, progress, infrastructure, energy, development, and global trade. This is not unique to Hawaiʻi; this pattern is global. While the water in Colombia is disappearing, the floods in Hawaiʻi are increasing. In 2020, Hawaiʻi had persistent drought conditions and increased wildfires. The islands are seeing 100-year floods every couple of years while our stream beds lay dry. This influx of water has no sponge to hold it and the damage is catastrophic.3,4
Unfortunately, this problem is an old one. With the rise of plantation agriculture beginning in the late 1800s, the abundant waters of Hawaiʻi were rerouted into an irrigation ditch system to transport moisture across the fertile, dry plains of the island. A sea of green sugarcane washed in, parching the waterways of origin and clogging up the veins of the mountains. This legacy has lasted over a century, beginning with the first ditch, built in 1878 by Alexander & Baldwin—still one of the top five private landowners in the state.
Concrete was poured and land blasted apart. Tunnels, built by thousands, funneled water underneath the towering island mountains. Carol Wilcox expounds,
The water development systems went by the title of ‘ditches.’ It is a term both humble and misleading: misleading because they were not all ditches—many were mostly flumes, siphons, and tunnels—and humble because their size and scale were often quite large. And they were everywhere. Very few watersheds escaped the winding, burrowing network of ditches.5
Kapua Sproat, an attorney for EarthJustice, declares that in the 21st century, over 90% of Hawaiʻi’s streams are diverted at least in part; this rerouting often bypasses the aquifer beds that feed and regenerate the hydrological system. To top it off, the infrastructure is failing.6 The American Society of Civil Engineer’s Infrastructure Report Card issues Hawaiʻi a D+ in safe and updated infrastructure, addressing their concerns, “Due to old age, these dams have deteriorated over time and present risks to downstream, now developed, communities. Of the 132 state-regulated dams, 123 (93%) are classified as high-hazard potential (HHP).”7
Hawaiʻi is a microcosmic example of the macrocosmic situations that created climate change: establishing poor land and water management (especially regarding industrialized agriculture) and prioritizing profit over the responsibility to care for the natural systems that offer life. But Hawaiʻi did not always have such devastating environmental realities.
For hundreds of years, Kānaka Maoli traditionally used ʻauwai diversion systems to feed the loʻi, diverting water from a stream into the muddy shallows and returning it at the end of the loʻi to nourish the larger stream it was borrowed from. This was how the plantation industry set up their first ditches. But as the greed grew and the foreign business empire began to flourish, the cultural landscape and Hawaiian way of life were torn apart. Many families had to leave their homes because the stream water resources that sustained them had diminished or completely disappeared. Thousands of acres of kalo lands once fed directly by these streams became dominated by the sugarcane plantation industry. For many decades, kalo was no longer an accessible staple crop and the stream habitat for native aquatic species completely vanished.
It is not just humans that depend on this water. Most native species are considered endemic to the islands of Hawai’i; they are found nowhere else in the world. Of them, the freshwater dwellers ʻoʻopu, ʻopae, and hīhīwai rely on the continuous pathway of wai to kai. Each of these species is reliant upon both freshwater and saltwater in their lives emblematically demonstrating the necessity of this unbroken water cycle. An ʻoʻopu is born and gets swept into the ocean, spending the first three to six months in the great waters eating plankton. Those that survive begin the journey home.
People say that the strong ʻoʻopu fish can climb waterfalls 1,000 feet tall. The ʻoʻopu kisses the cliffs as it climbs makai to mauka, and supports itself upward with its fused pelvic fins, functioning as a second sucker. Constituted of five separate species, four of which are endemic, the ʻoʻopu used to be so abundant that “one couldn’t go into the water without rubbing against them.”8 ʻOʻopu is eaten by the community and used in ceremony, but with the restricted water and invasive species pressures in the stream, ʻoʻopu now exist in limited numbers.
Supported by decades of intimate and observed knowledge of the ʻoʻopu’s waterways, aquatic biologist, Skippy Hau, describes that when these natural streams are paved over with concrete, there is a rapid influx of water. The expediency creates a new pace of water that creates dry periods between flushes. As the wai comes, the ʻopae and ʻoʻopu make the trek across the foreign concrete from the ocean, until they hit a concrete wall, a terrace. Unable to climb this wall, the ʻopae and ʻoʻopu get stuck, the water dries out, and they get isolated into tiny pools. But because the concrete holds so much heat, these creatures end up boiling to death.9
Our island communities have experienced this reality for far too long. Activists, kalo stewards, and concerned citizens are encouraging both the removal of stream diversions and the return of maximum streamflow to counteract this reality. According to the activist group, Hui o Nā Wai ʻEhā, the environmental impact of streamflow restoration will:
- Facilitate upstream and downstream passage for native aquatic stream species (ʻoʻopu, hīhīwai,‘ōpae).
- Safeguard groundwater and aquifer recharge
- Revive native ecosystems such as upland watersheds, estuaries, wetlands, riparian native vegetation and nearshore fisheries.
- Advocate for traditional and customary practices of Native Hawaiians such as loʻi kalo cultivation, nearshore fishing, and gathering.
- Support aesthetic values and outdoor community recreational activities along streams.
- Promote education and research.10
Restoring water flow will not resolve our dependence on concrete infrastructure, but it is the first step to take towards replenishing the islands’ water supply.
Peace through Water
In ʻolelo Hawai’i, maluhia means peace, while hoʻomaluhia means to give peace, to protect.11 The only possibility for peaceful, abundant futures lies in protecting wai. The state government as water protectors (so named in the Hawaiʻi State Constitution) must integrate a management system where one cannot separate giving and receiving. Luckily for us, that model already exists.
Instead of water disruptors, the people of Hawaiʻi can be the conduits of a water sustaining future. We have a pathway to peace. By shifting the focus of programs like civil engineering to reimagine what water infrastructure can become—an opening of the walled-up streams back into permeable forms—a new and old story awaits us. We must collectively loosen our grip on our need to control and regulate the water (also named in the Hawaiʻi State Constitution) and instead support the water where it wants to flow.
A return to the ʻauwai system and the values it’s based upon supports not only subsistence crop farming and traditional land tending ways but could once again nourish the ecosystem around it. Waiwai means abundance, but abundance depends on water. In this pivotal moment, water depends on us.
ʻolelo Hawai’i—the Hawaiian language
Kānaka Maoli—native Hawaiian
kupuna—elder, grandparent, ancestor; starting point, source
kino lau— manifestation
wai—freshwater, life, blood
makai—seaward, toward the ocean
mauka—inland, toward the mountain
ʻauwai—part of a stream diversion system; ditch, canal
loʻi—irrigated terrace or paddy for growing crops, usually kalo
hoʻomaluhia—the creation of peace and tranquility; to make peace, protect
waiwai—abundance, value, worth, wealth
- Mary Kawena Pukui, Ōlelo No’eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Political Sayings, (Honolulu, HI: Bishop Museum Press, 1983), 110.
- Collette Leimomi Akana and Kiele Gonzalez, Hanau Ka Ua: Hawaiian Rain Names, (Honolulu, HI: Kamehameha Publishing, 2015), xv.
- Ashley Nagaoka, “Waters Recede after Flooding Rains on Kauai, Leaving behind a Big Mess,” Hawaii News Now, March 29, 2020, https://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/2020/03/29/kauai-residents-react-massive-overnight-flooding/.
- Rachel Treisman, “Hawaii Flooding Prompts Emergency Declaration, Evacuations and Fears Of Dam Failure,” (NPR, March 10, 2021), https://www.npr.org/2021/03/10/975602313/hawaii-flooding-prompts-emergency-declaration-evacuations-and-fears-of-dam-failu.
- Carol Wilcox, Sugar Water: Hawaii’s Plantation Ditches, (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 16.
- Ola I Ka Wai: Water is Life, (Kamakako’i, 2014), https://vimeo.com/87830767.
- “Hawaii Infrastructure: ASCE’s 2021 Infrastructure Report Card,” ASCE’s 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, March 3, 2021, https://infrastructurereportcard.org/state-item/hawaii/.
- Mary Kawena Pukui, Ōlelo No’eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Political Sayings, 146.
- Ola I Ka Wai.
- “About,” Hui o Nā Wai ʻEhā, accessed March 21, 2021, https://www.huionawaieha.org/about.