NEED‌ ‌TO‌ ‌KNOW:‌ ‌Water‌ ‌Shortages‌ ‌in‌ ‌Hawaii‌ ‌

As featured in Edition 38, available here.


BY CALLUM DOHERTY ‌(3rd‌ ‌year‌ ‌-‌ ‌PPL‌ ‌-‌ ‌Sheffield,‌ ‌UK)‌ ‌


What’s happening?


Over the course of July and August a severe drought has hit the Hawaii archipelago, in particular, the state’s second largest island, Maui. Since July 2nd, a Stage 1 water shortage has been in place, meaning that residents of Maui county could be fined up to $500 if they use water for nonessential activities such as car washing. The ban has raised the ire of many Hawaiians, especially those in poorer and agricultural areas, who also complain of unequal treatment between them and the big hotels that dominate Hawaii’s economy. The ongoing water shortages, part of an increasing number of environmental challenges the state faces, has raised questions about tourist numbers, island inequality, and the extractive and unsustainable nature of Hawaii’s largest industry.



What’s behind the shortages?


The drought in Hawaii is, like many other cases, a generations-long problem that is being caused by climate change. Surrounded by the sea, Hawaii’s small land mass leaves very few sources of freshwater. Scientists have warned that up to 70% of Hawaii’s coastline is eroding, seas are rising, and important supplies of freshwater in the mountains are drying up. As well as droughts, risk of flooding threatens infrastructure and cultural sites. Environmental changes threaten much of Hawaii’s unique wildlife, from the forest birds threatened by increasing mosquito numbers, to the coral reefs that are expected to bleach annually by 2040. Given that Hawaii is home to 1/3 of the US’ threatened or endangered plants and animals, this is a worrying development.


Water inequality:


The drought is not simply an environmental issue either. It is increasingly a social issue, as many local Hawaiians complain of a double standard when it comes to the state’s water-guzzling hotel and tourism sector. According to one 2013 report, Hawaii’s tourism industry accounts for 44.7% of the state’s water-consumption, yet drought measures do not apply to hotels. The disparity is such that in July former state lawmaker, Kaniela Ing, complained that Hawaiians were being treated “like second class citizens” and begged tourists to “stop coming to Hawaii”. For many Native Hawaiians, the difference in treatment is emblematic of a largely foreign tourism industry, which, though a vital part of the state’s economy, makes life difficult and even unlivable for many local Hawaiians.


A colonial legacy:


Hawaii was an independent country before annexation by the US in 1893, which occurred largely at the behest of American businessmen on the island. Used for scientific and military operations at the expense of sacred sites like Mauna Kea, Hawaii became a state in 1959. However, the lasting effects of annexation are seen in the ongoing struggles of Native Hawaiians, who suffer disproportionate levels of poverty and unemployment. Since 1980, income inequality and the cost of living has grown. The wealth brought in by tourists and mainland expats doesn’t reach poorer Hawaiians, who instead find their communities becoming increasingly unaffordable. Large tracts of Hawaii are still owned by outside interests, most notably Mark Zuckerberg, who bought another 600 acres of Hawaiian land in March 2021.


Should tourists stay at home?


Hawaii’s Governor, David Ige, says that now is not the time to visit. Tourism is Hawaii’s largest industry, making up 21% of its economy, but the sheer number of tourists is growing unsustainably. About 1.5 million people live in Hawaii, yet in May 2021 alone over 600,000 tourists visited. Having gotten used to a tourist-free Hawaii during lockdown, locals are increasingly resentful of tourists crowding beaches and sacred sites, using up desperately needed resources such as water, and paying little heed to surging cases of a virus that has disproportionately affected the Native community. In this context, it is unsurprising that there are increased calls from within Hawaii to sharply reduce the state’s reliance on tourism and transfer to a more sustainable, equitable economy.


IMAGE: Flickr / Justin Sloan