Wai and Kai, two distinctively different words meaning relatively the same thing — water. In most cases in Hawaiʻi, we have Hawaiian words that hold several meanings, but in this case, it’s the opposite. Kai encompasses the ocean, our Kanaloa, while wai is that of freshwater, present in Kanaloa’s counterpart brother, Kāne.
In our moʻolelo these two brothers come from Kahiki, the land where most of our akua, gods, come from — also geographically known to be Tahiti. The twin brothers traveled together across Polynesia until entering our island chain and are, therefore, seen amongst tales all across our Oceanic family.
Whilst in Hawaiʻi, the brothers traveled across the islands regularly drinking ʻawa, a beverage with similar alcoholic effects. As they drank, they sought out drinking water that couldn’t be found. Encompassing his persona of freshwater, Kāne stuck his ʻōʻō, digging stick, into the ground and created freshwater sources all throughout Hawaiʻi. These sources are still present today and are our islands’ lifeline.
In traditional Hawaiian times, Hawaiians established themselves within an ahupuaʻa system, a social and governmental organization held within moku — land divisions. These land systems begin at the top of our mountains and create borders along the valleys and rivers that flow to the kai. Within each division held an aliʻi, chief, and his makaʻainana, commoners.
The aliʻi was nothing without his people, serving them rather than the other way around. These traditional kanaka, Hawaiians, lived around the flowing river and the ocean. Those who live ma kai, seaward, provided for those who lived ma uka, upland — each establishing their own style of farming, like loʻi kālo, taro farms, all throughout the river’s downstream.
This balanced lifestyle founded our survival for decades — until the westerners came. Owning land was never a conception to us. For kanaka, we were part of the land, coinciding equally with one another.
When westerners came, they abolished our ahupuaʻa system and took our land for their own. Since Hawaiians lacked the understanding of owning land, almost everything was taken away from us and placed into the hands of American owners — including the wai.
On the island of Maui we sadly see an example of the everlasting effects that the owning of wai has entailed. In the late 1800s a company called Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) purchased hundreds of acres on Maui and established the Hawaiʻi Commercial and Sugar Cane Company (HC&S) for sugar farming. Due to the high acreage for farming, the company went in and drew water from local streams all across the island, prioritizing personal profit.
Ditches and cement railings were constructed on both mountains of Maui, stripping natural flowing wai from the kanaka, who are fortunate to live in their one hānau — native land.
On Maui’s Haleakalā mountain, we see East Maui Irrigation (EMI), a subsidiary of Alexander and Baldwin, strip rivers on our east side. On the west is Kahālāwai — our western mountain — where four main water streams, Nā Wai ʻEhā, are dried for HC&S and other reasons, including a golf course’s 100-foot long water fountain.
Nā Wai ʻEhā is known as the Four Great Waters and encompasses the primary, and only, streams for central Maui. These streams include Waikapū, Wailuku (ʻĪao), Waiehu, and Waiheʻe. Each stream has its own purpose and moʻolelo within and are all vital for several reasons.
The corporate diversions of these waters not only cut off the flow to local loʻi kalo, our native source of sustainability, but also cut the life from ecosystems and the animals found within that rely on the water’s flow.
For instance, our local and endemic ʻoʻopu are unable to fulfill their life cycle, which requires them to swim upstream to reproduce. Without a stream to swim up, these native fish are dying off. Commission on Water Resource Management attempted to undue their actions of reduced water flow and steep cement walls, but their means to help only killed off hundreds of fish.
Without a stream to swim up, these native fish are dying off.
For years and years on end kānaka realized the torture of discontinuing our islands’ streams. Standing up against the powerhouse of A&B, our people strived to return the flow to our dry rivers and return wai to Nā Wai ʻEhā.
Of course, unsurprisingly, this fight was prolonged for 10 years because the sugar cane’s company played a key role in our island’s economy. Traditional and cultural loʻi kalo didn’t make money, sugar cane did. It was only until 2014 when Hawaiʻi’s Commission on Water Resource Management settled on an agreement to restore some water to the barren streams.
Following this restoration, in 2016 slight justice prevailed, as the sugar cane company closed due to lack of profit. It wasn’t until 2018, however, when EMI restored full flow to East Maui.
Through HC&S closing, the business placed their thousands of acres up for sale, the majority being designated for agriculture. At this time, a new farming business by the name of Mahi Pono, newly co-owner and operator of EMI, purchased 41,000 acres with plans to create sustainable farming. But, they are no different from that of HC&S for they too seek and fight for the diversion and depletion of water to benefit their profits.
Even though water has since returned, the entire flow has not come back. The golf course’s fountain still spurs with ʻĪao water, and the Wailuku stream is a barren slab of cement with a small trickle that confuses ʻoʻopu trying to swim up.
This fight, like most of our fights in Hawaiʻi, defends our cultural rights. Through Hui o Nā Wai ʻEhā, a nonprofit founded to achieve central river restoration, our voices are still here. We continually prove the illegality of these places and their acts, as well as how their evidence of purchases is just another fake paper amidst the illegal occupation of Hawaiʻi in the U.S.
We continually prove the illegality of these places and their acts, as well as how their evidence of purchases is just another fake paper amidst the illegal occupation of Hawaiʻi in the U.S.
Kāne once granted us these fresh springs all throughout our ʻāina, land, to help our people and islands survive. Without water, we are truly nothing, and that is what the westerners belittled us to. Our rivers stopped flowing and their pockets started growing, all at the cost of our culture.
Last updated 9/14/20
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