Listen to this article:

Until the U.S. unlawfully overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, Hawaii was a sovereign nation ruled by Queen Lili‘uokalani. Hawaii has been actively occupied by the U.S. military ever since, serving as an outpost for American imperialism. To people that may be unaware of its colonial history, Hawaii is simply a tropical utopia, rich in natural beauty and culture, attracting millions of visitors each year. Many people who decide to vacation on the Hawaiian Islands are uninformed of the devastating effects that the military and the tourism industry have on the environment and the livelihood of Indigenous Hawaiians.

To Kanaka Maoli – the Indigenous peoples of the Hawaiian Islands – water is life. The word wai, meaning water in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, the Indigenous Hawaiian language, can be found within the word for wealth: waiwai. Before colonisation, the Hawaiian kingdom acknowledged water as a source of wealth and thus modelled their governance structures around the cyclical flows of water. The kingdom provided for its population through the sustainable management of water resources, such as regenerative agriculture and aquaculture systems. Yet today, under the U.S. occupation of Hawaii, water is considered a commodity by large corporations and government agencies and is treated as a dispensable resource. 

The American occupation of Hawaii has resulted in a water crisis which is increasingly made worse by the effects of climate change. Specifically, the U.S. military and the overcapacity tourism industry exploit water reserves in Hawaii, fuelling a crisis that disproportionately affects Indigenous Hawaiians. While policymakers debate potential solutions to the water crisis, Hawaiians maintain the importance of decolonization and demilitarisation in remedying this climate emergency.

Military Water Contamination

Since the construction of the Red Hill Fuel Facility near Pearl Harbour during WWII, the U.S. Navy has leaked approximately 180,000 gallons of jet fuel into potable water sources. In November 2021, 2,000 people reported becoming sick after fuel leaked into the water well, which draws from reserves held under the fuel storage facility at Red Hill. The leak affected safe water sources for over 90,000 residents and resulted in the evacuation of thousands of families for weeks on end. 

Since March 18, 2022, the state’s health department has insisted that the water is safe to drink and that residents may return to their homes and consume the water. Yet, residents who have returned home reported that they were still getting sick. Many of them have experienced more fatigue, headaches, dizziness, skin conditions, diarrhea, nausea and anxiety. Seven elementary schools were also impacted by the leak, leaving many children sick for several months, having to miss school, and being hospitalised for their symptoms. 

On August 2, 2022, the University of Hawaii (UH) researchers published their findings on water samples still testing positive for jet fuel. Concerningly, their findings were removed within hours of posting and their press conference scheduled to announce the results was cancelled. The University of Hawaii later told stakeholders that they had to remove their findings after receiving pushback from the Navy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state’s Health Department.

Ernie Lau, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s Chief Engineer, described the Navy’s response to the leak as “ineffective” and the “defueling plan [as] equally disappointing.” The Navy has proposed to defuel Red Hill by the end of 2024, a timeline Lau and activists deem unacceptable for remediating the damage caused to the island’s water reserves. 

Activists have also been organising to shut down the Navy’s Red Hill underground storage tank facility entirely. Through their advocacy, these activists hope to shut down military operations on the islands to prevent further fuel leaks in the future. By using Hawaii as a military outpost, the United States has not only expanded its imperial reach eastward across the Pacific but has fueled climate change through the destruction of Hawaii’s land and resources. Demilitarizing Hawaii could restore the water reserves and mediate the effects of climate change on Indigenous and local communities. 

The Impacts of Over Tourism 

The economic exploitation of Hawaii’s resources extends beyond the grasp of the U.S. military, paralleling the current relationship between local communities and the tourism industry on islands today. Indigenous Hawaiians have asked tourists to stop coming to Hawaii and supporting an overflowing industry which takes resources away from local communities. As the current levels of travel reach and surpass those of the pre-pandemic era, agricultural sectors, water reserves, and housing infrastructures are struggling to keep up with the number of tourists each month.

On June 30, 2022, due to severe drought and the depletion of water reserves, mandatory water restrictions were put in place for West Maui residents and Upcountry communities. Locals from these areas could be fined $500 for using water for non-essential activities, including watering their lawns or washing their vehicles, and they could potentially have their water metres removed. However, no water restrictions have been placed on the tourism industry, which accounts for 44.7% of Hawaii’s water consumption. While local residents are forced to comply with water restrictions, the tourism industry – with its extensive network of hotels, pools, and tourist attractions – is unaffected by these restrictions. 

Government officials have considered several approaches to decreasing overtourism, including caps on the number of tourists allowed on the islands. This solution could combat other issues posed by overtourism, such as the increase in short-term rental accommodations, which has caused a vast housing crisis across the state. Many local residents are choosing to move to the continental U.S. to afford the cost of living. At the same time, Hawaii’s lack of affordable housing has increased the number of people experiencing homelessness, while existing infrastructure is reserved for short-term rentals for tourists. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) are notably overrepresented in homeless communities. For example, NHPI accounts for a disproportionate 51% of the houseless population in Oahu, despite accounting for only 10.5% of the state’s total population. A lack of accessible and affordable housing means that people experiencing homelessness do not have access to safe and clean water.

Over tourism on the islands reflects the United States’ colonial legacy in Hawaii.  The U.S. military, corporations, and government bodies appropriate Hawaiian culture to create the notion that Hawaii is an exotic utopia untarnished by the mainland. As a result, Hawaii is promoted as an ideal destination for military families, and many of the popular tourist attractions on the islands are American military sites. While Hawaii has become an “amusement park” for rich settlers and tourists, Indigenous communities have consistently been suppressed and ignored.

A Call to Action

Environmental crises like the ones witnessed today did not occur under Indigenous governance systems because they were able to manage the islands’ resources sustainably. That is why organizations have been fighting for Hawaiian sovereignty from the U.S. The U.S. military and tourism industries, operating at a capacity that the islands cannot handle, should be held accountable for their destructive practices. Reinvesting money from the military and mass tourism into local communities could work to protect essential resources, including water. In addition to limiting how many tourists can visit Hawaii at any given time, government officials have considered other solutions, such as requiring reservations and fees to enter popular tourist destinations. The Honolulu City Council also voted to pass Bill 41, which would restrict short-term rentals of under 90 days on the island of Oahu. Further, Maui’s Mayor has called for a pause in commercial flights to the islands.

However, these proposed efforts are not enough. Water crises are only going to worsen as climate change intensifies. By returning the land and political authority to Indigenous governance systems, the islands may begin to heal from centuries of military and corporate exploitation. Before booking a vacation to Hawaii, we must consider the voices of Indigenous Hawaiians who are asking tourists not to come. Tourists are responsible for making ethical decisions while travelling to respect the people upon whose land they are visiting. That means opting out of a trip to Hawaii and instead supporting the Hawaiian fight against overtourism and military occupation.

Edited by Bethlehem Samson

Alex Senchyna

Alex (she/they) recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with a B.A. in International Studies and History and currently works in refugee resettlement. Their interests include human rights law, migration...