The Way of Wai

Blending the old with the new to bring water security back to Maui

The wai connects us. The wai has always connected us, no matter where we are from. With these thoughts in mind, it seemed fitting that the recent Piʻo Summit for Wai Sovereignty and Justice, held on December 15 at the East-West Center in Honolulu, was made available online for all to access, opening connectivity broadly and freely. I attended remotely, in hopes of gaining fresh perspective and inspiration to do my part in protecting Maui’s precious freshwater resources. The timing couldnʻt have been better, as Maui County voters recently decided to implement a County Charter Amendment establishing a community-based approach to managing water resources, known as the Maui County Community Water Authorities.

Landscape view of waterfall and old tree near road to Hana, Maui, Hawaii, USA

My own connection to Hawaiʻi’s long battle for wai sovereignty goes back to my first days on Maui nearly two decades ago. I was invited to document and work alongside kānaka maoli kuleana farmers in West Maui who were restoring loʻi kalo, and in so doing, restoring their connection to the stream that their families had stewarded for generations and reclaiming their right to dwell on the land. From the first day in that valley, I was overcome with awe at witnessing such a deep, familial connection to place. It felt strangely familiar, but had been long forgotten in my own lineage of immigration and generational displacement from land. My time spent among those doing the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual work of wai sovereignty laid the foundation for my life on Maui as a land steward, activist, and ally.

The Piʻo Summit was hosted by Dr. Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, who serves as the Dana Naone Hall Chair at the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. Dr. Beamerʻs long history of work in areas of governance, land tenure, and Hawaiian resource management has been recently punctuated by a focus on circular economies—a model of production and consumption whereby a community shares and reuses existing materials and products for as long as possible. 

The summit featured two panels, the first with aloha ʻāina leaders like Mauiʻs own Hōkūao Pellegrino and Tiare Lawrence speaking to their communities’ efforts to restore streamflow in Nā Wai ʻEhā and Kahoma respectively, and the second with community leaders at the forefront of the Shut Down Red Hill movement—an effort to hold the U.S. Navy accountable for its mismanagement of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility and the subsequent leak of jet fuel into the freshwater resources of Moanalua and Waimalu aquifer at Kapūkaki (Red Hill), which supplies more than 40 percent of Oʻahu residents’ drinking water.

One of the strongest lessons Iʻm taking away from both of these panels is the importance of intimacy with place. This theme was made most potent when Camille Kalama, a leader of Kaʻohewai (a coalition of Hawaiian organizations rising in defense of Kapūkaki), shared wisdom that had been passed down to her. A kupuna had encouraged her, she said, “to know something about your land, because it is people in a place for a long period of time that is where our power comes from. It comes from knowing our ʻāina intimately.” This idea goes beyond place literacy (a kind of “bookish” knowing), and becomes place intimacy—a familial connection to land that must be cultivated and tended. 

Hawaiian taro (kalo) ponds (lo‘i) at Kepaniwai Heritage Park in ‘Iao Valley. Photo courtesy Flickr / Joel Abroad

When cultivating a meaningful sense of place in Hawai‘i, one quickly realizes the important role that fresh water resources have played from the beginning. “Not only was freshwater a source of all life,” shared UH professor Dr. Kapua Sproat at the summit, “it was revered as ʻKāne Ka Wai Olaʻ—Kāne of the Life-giving Waters, a principal akua in our pantheon. It was and remains a life force that sustains not just our natural resources, but our spiritual mana. It is the lifeblood of our indigenous culture that helps us define who we are as a people.”

Hawaiians believed that water was a resource to be shared by all, for common benefit. It’s common sense that in an island ecosystem, a community would share the water—a finite amount of land means a finite amount of fresh water. Hoarding was not a natural concept for kānaka maoli, as continuous streamflow and careful water stewardship kept the systems working and the waters healthy from mauka to makai–for common benefit to be shared by all. 

Because the waters connect us, wai sovereignty–while it puts the power in the hands of the people–comes with a responsibility to not only use the water, but to take care of it. Tending the stream water as part of a community of farmers wonʻt allow for a “free-for-all”—it means there need to be limits. Ancient irrigation systems came with laws for native farmers to follow: “No ‘auwai was permitted to take more water than continued to flow in the stream below the dam,” Emma Metcalf Naiuna, Hawai‘iʻs first female judge, wrote in “Ancient Hawaiian Water Rights and Some Customs Pertaining to Them,” in 1893. This measured use of the streams had existed for hundreds of years, with residences and stream-irrigated fields along its slopes and watered valleys, using just the amount of fresh stream water needed to feed the community, tending to the stream as it moved through their lo‘i, and then back out into the stream again, so it would eventually reach the sea.

The arrival of Westerners in 1778, and the influx of arrivals that followed, dramatically altered life in Hawai‘i. More familiar with the concept of private property, these new island dwellers saw the water, native hardwoods, and other natural resources as assets to boost economic pursuits, including their large-scale plantations. This new way of thinking was foreign to kānaka maoli, and it caused conflict around how water and land could be used. 

“The history of water in Hawai‘i is tied to a narrative of colonization and power. The story of wai, of freshwater, in Hawaiʻi is unfortunately similar to too many others across Island Earth, where we had amazing resources and many other people who coveted it,” Dr. Sproat shared at the summit.

Eventually, with the development of massive sugarcane plantations in Hawai‘i, and the increase in these private business’ demand for fresh stream water, elaborate systems of water diversion were constructed, all with permission from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. The abundant streams of Maui were bisected by ditch systems and water delivery mechanisms upstream, and the public water needs of other users downstream–such as native kalo farmers–were disregarded.

Despite a decades-long fight to restore water rights to kalo farmers and the communityʻs successful efforts to proclaim water as a public trust in the state constitution, private commodification of water continues to overpower the public interest. Even with these public trust laws in place, unraveling the practice of water diversion is proving a lengthy process. Nonetheless, the fight to regain wai sovereignty has been persistent, and we are seeing streamflow restoration successes throughout Maui and a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

In addition to joining and supporting wai sovereignty movements in our communities, there are ways we can all become more personally connected to the waters that give us life. We can start by learning where the fresh water in our homes comes from. Depending on where you live on Maui, it may come from a reservoir, a stream, a catchment system, or it may travel through water treatment facilities and municipal systems. We can watch how the water flows through our neighborhoods in a rainstorm, and we can visit the nearest shoreline to get to know the place where the water returns to the sea. 

We can work to restore forests up mauka (where the rain clouds form) and the loko iʻa (fish ponds) makai, and can tend the lands where we live in between, since all of Maui is an interconnected watershed. In these ways, we can form closer relationships with our wai and foster a level of intimacy that has perhaps been missing in our lives.

It remains to be seen how the Maui County Community Water Authorities will live up to the promise of establishing water security on Maui, but the people of Maui have decided it is time for a new way to steward our wai. With any luck, and with all of you to support the process, the new way will be inspired by the old way.

Sara Tekula