The Struggle for Water Rights in Hawaii

Explore Hawaii’s water rights history, its impact on native communities, ecosystems, and the role of tourism. Learn how to support sustainable practices.

The Struggle for Water Rights in Hawaii
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Water is crucial to the Hawaiian Islands, as it sustains their lush landscapes, unique ecosystems, and vibrant communities. However, managing and distributing this vital resource has faced challenges and controversies. For travelers, it’s important to comprehend the cultural, environmental, and political aspects of the ongoing water rights struggle in Hawaii. This article aims to provide insight into these intricate issues and their impact on the islands’ communities and environment.

The History of Water Rights in Hawaii

Historically, water rights in Hawaii were governed by the concept of kuleana, emphasizing communal responsibility and stewardship of natural resources. The Great Mahele of 1848, a land redistribution act, and the subsequent transition to Western-style property rights significantly altered water resource management. These changes led to a complex and often contentious landscape of water rights in the state, with various interests competing for access to this valuable resource.

Native Hawaiian Water Rights and the Public Trust Doctrine

Native Hawaiian water rights and the Public Trust Doctrine are two key legal principles that protect traditional and customary practices and ensure sustainable water resource management in Hawaii. These principles acknowledge the unique relationship between Native Hawaiians and the islands’ water resources, aiming to balance stakeholder needs while prioritizing environmental and cultural practice protection.

Controversial Water Diversion Projects

Several water diversion projects in Hawaii, such as the East Maui Irrigation System and the Waiāhole Ditch, have ignited controversy and legal battles. These projects have significantly impacted local communities, ecosystems, and cultural practices, with many arguing that they disproportionately favor large-scale agriculture and development interests over the environment and traditional water users.

Efforts to Protect and Restore Stream Flows

Various organizations, communities, and government agencies work to protect and restore stream flows in Hawaii. These efforts are vital for preserving the islands’ ecosystems, cultural practices, and overall sustainability. Initiatives such as stream diversion removal, community-based management plans, and legal actions contribute to the responsible and equitable use of water resources.

The Role of Tourism and Development

Tourism and development contribute to the challenges surrounding water rights in Hawaii. As the primary economic driver, the tourism industry requires significant water resources for hotels, golf courses, and other attractions. Balancing the needs of this industry with natural resource preservation and local community rights is an ongoing challenge that necessitates thoughtful planning and stakeholder collaboration.

What Travelers Can Do to Support Water Rights in Hawaii

Travelers can support water rights in Hawaii by learning about the issues, respecting local customs and practices, and supporting organizations dedicated to protecting water resources. Consider conserving water during your stay, choosing eco-friendly accommodations, and engaging with local communities to better understand their perspectives on water rights and resource management.


Hawaii’s rich cultural and environmental heritage is closely connected to its water resources. As travelers, being mindful of the ongoing water rights struggle and the complex issues surrounding it is essential. By understanding and respecting these challenges, we can help promote a sustainable future for the Hawaiian Islands and ensure their unique beauty and cultural legacy are preserved for future generations.


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