The Other Threat to our Water Supply


By Nicole Mahealani Lum, D.O.

Climate change threatens Hawaiʻi’s clean water sources and endangers the health of our people.

The Navy fuel leakage into the tap water supply at Oʻahu’s military housing has sickened hundreds. The illness, displacement, and anxiety caused by this crisis reinforced the critical importance of protecting our waterways and maintaining access to clean water.

But fuel leaks are not our only worry; climate change is an underrecognized, long-standing threat to our water supply.

Climate change is here in Hawaiʻi. Now. We are experiencing more extreme weather, hotter temperatures, drought, and rising sea levels. As a doctor, I regularly see the health effects of these and other environmental changes.

The consequences of sea level rise are most obvious when king tides erode and destroy coastal homes and communities. But a lesser-known consequence is seawater rising into the groundwater table – a vital fresh water supply. When sea levels rise, the heavier saltwater pushes up from the ocean and mixes with the groundwater, causing salt contamination and inland flooding. Salty groundwater is undrinkable. Brain swelling, seizures and coma are some symptoms of salt poisoning.

If we do not protect our freshwater supply, we will lose it and suffer dire consequences.

We are an island community that has been industrialized, and our resources are limited. What water we have left for consumption is controlled by governing bodies, diverted from natural pathways, rationed out across the island, and used wastefully. We are not living like an island. Hawaiʻi imports 90% of its food, mostly from the continental United States. Petroleum accounts for 60% of Hawaiʻi’s imports. Our dependency on fossil fuels is driving climate change.

We are living unsustainably, and soon our beautiful islands will reach a tipping point.

Everyone will suffer, but certain people are more vulnerable to climate change and its effects: low-income individuals, older adults, pregnant women, children, and people with chronic diseases. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders suffer disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. The irony is painful – Hawaiians have more chronic diseases and are hit hardest by the effects of environmental change – yet for centuries we thrived in abundance by following land and water conservation practices that sustained generations of people before colonial contact.

Perhaps the answer lies therein. To restore balance and health in our islands, we need to turn to the wisdom of our ancestors and return to natural systems and practices. We need to reduce our wasteful consumption of natural resources like water. We need to restore the natural flow of water within our community and grow our own food. We need to drive less and walk more. We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and support policies for renewable energy. We need to take care of this land.

We cannot wait for the next crisis to take action and protect our precious home. Water in its natural cycle gives forth life – let’s all do our part to make sure we still have it.

Dr. Nicole Mahealani Lum is a family medicine physician in Honolulu. She is a 2022 Climate and Health Equity Fellow of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The opinions expressed here are Dr. Lum’s and do not express the views or opinions of her employer.