Ola i ka Wai


Ola (nvs. Life, health, wellbeing, living, livelihood, means of support, salvation; alive, living.)

Photo: Sylvia Hussey

Aloha mai kākou,

For decades, Kohala was defined by its sugar plantations. When I was born, sugar was the economic engine of our community – and had been since the late 1800s. At one time there were six plantations, but by 1937 they had been consolidated as the Kohala Sugar Company, which finally closed down in 1975.

It takes 500 gallons of water to produce just one pound of sugar and Kohala is not known for abundant rainfall. There is an ʻōlelo noʻeau that goes: “nā ʻilina wai ʻole o Kohala” which means “the waterless plains of Kohala, where water will not remain long.”

To provide Kohala’s thirsty cane fields with millions of gallons of fresh water each day, all running natural surface waters from the Kohala-Hāmākua watershed were diverted via the Kohala Ditch.

Growing up in a plantation community, my ʻohana and neighbors depended on the plantation for our livelihood. Keiki swam and played in the ditch that fed the fields. As a child I did not understand the detrimental impact that the diversion of the water had on our ecosystem, nor did I ponder how a few powerful men were able to control and hoard for their own enrichment such a vital natural resource.

The fight for access to fresh water is not unique to Hawaiʻi. A billion people across the planet lack access to clean water – which the United Nations has declared is a basic human right noting that governments should ensure that “Indigenous peoples’ access to water resources on their ancestral lands is protected from encroachment and unlawful pollution.”

Corporate agriculture, residential and resort development, and other corporate or military interests (think Dakota Access Pipeline and Red Hill) perpetuate ongoing abuses of water resources in the name of profit. On Black Mesa, the ancestral homeland of the Hopi and Diné (Navajo) peoples, mining by the Peabody Coal Company has nearly depleted the aquifer they rely on for drinking water. In South America, Canada, India and the Philippines, Indigenous people are fighting governments and corporations to protect their access to water.

Back at home, although the plantations have closed, the fight for freshwater remains contentious. Diversified agriculture corporations and resort developers, in particular, have replaced “sugar barons” and while there have recently been victories for small farmers, much work remains.

Our cover article provides an overview of the fight for water rights on the island of Maui where the struggle has been particularly onerous. We are delighted to welcome guest authors Uʻilani Tanigawa Lum and Luʻukia Nakanelua, both of whom are attorneys on staff at Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law, and kupa of Maui.

At OHA, advocacy on behalf of our ʻohana, moʻomeheu and ʻāina is our core kuleana. It is our responsibility to advocate for good policy on behalf of our lāhui and for more than 20 years, OHA has supported the efforts of mahiʻai and other kiaʻi wai on Maui and will continue to do so until the island’s streams are flowing and healthy once again.

Ola i ka wai. Water is life.

Sylvia M. Hussey, Ed.D.

Chief Executive Officer