A History of Hawaiian Freshwater Resources

Document Type

Encyclopedia Entry

Publication Date


Publication Source

Water Encyclopedia


The history of Hawaiian freshwater resources begins 1500–1600 years ago, when the first Hawaiians arrived from Polynesia. Early Hawaiian freshwater management balanced human needs with ecological sustainability through community-based taro farming. In this system, water was never diverted out of the watershed. Instead, freshwater was the lifeline that connected the mountains to the oceans. Western discovery of Hawaii brought with it privatized natural resources, cultural diversity, and a shift of agriculture from within the watersheds to sunny, but arid, landscapes. The rise of sugar cane facilitated political changes that led to the fall of the Hawaiian Monarchy and eventual statehood in the United States. However, this new agriculture was economically impossible without diverting irrigation water from the windward sides of each island, resulting in a permanent loss from the watersheds. Stream water removal eliminates habitat and disrupts a specialized life cycle of several endemic species, a life cycle that requires migration to and from the ocean. Recent petitions to enforce existing water law have sparked political debate of freshwater allocation in the face of diminished agriculture. Future management will require compromise and scientifically based strategies to bring back ecological balance and long-term sustainability.


John Wiley & Sons