Why was there no water to fight the fire in Maui? | Naomi Klein and Kapua'ala Sproat (2023)

AAcross Maui, golf courses glisten emerald green, hotels manage to fill their pools, and businesses store water to sell to luxury estates. And yet, when it came time to fight the fires, some hoses ran dry. Why?

The reason is the longstanding battle for West Maui's most precious natural resource: water. So on Tuesday, August 8, as she fled the fires in Lahaina, Tereari'i Chandler-'Īao grabbed a bag of clothes, some food—and something unconventional: a box filled with applications for water use permits.

Despite her personal disaster, Tereari'i, a grassroots attorney, already knew that the battle for Maui's future was about to intensify, and that at its core would not be fire, but an entirely different element: water. In particular, the water rights of Native Hawaiians, rights that have nipped in the bud a long parade of plantations, real estate developers and luxury resorts for nearly two centuries. As the flames approached, Tereari'i feared that those big players, under the cover of an emergency, would finally have a chance to conquer the waters of West Maui for good.

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She knew something else, too: that the only force that could stop the theft would be organized grassroots communities—even though those same communities had already gone to great lengths to save lives and search for lost loved ones.

Disaster capitalism—the worn-out tactic of exploiting moments of extreme collective trauma to quickly push through unpopular laws that benefit a small elite—relies on this vicious dynamic. As Lee Cataluna, a native Maui-born journalist,noticedlately, those on the frontlines of disasters have necessarily been focused on “survival affairs.” Announcements. Services. Instructions. Staff. Go here to get gas. Look at this list to see if your husband's name is on there” – not about coercive real estate transactions or backroom policies. That is precisely why this tactic all too often succeeds.

Disaster capitalism has taken many forms in different contexts. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, immediate action was taken to replace public schools with charter schools, and to demolish public housing projects to make way for gentrifying mansions. In Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria in 2017, these were public schoolsagainunder siege and there was an attempt to privatize the power grid before the storm made landfall. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, valuable beachfront land previously managed by small-scale fishermen and farmers was destroyed after the 2004 tsunami.confiscatedby real estate developers while their rightful residents were trapped in evacuation camps.

It's always a little different, which is why some native Hawaiians have come to call their unique version by a slightly different term: plantation disaster capitalism. It is a name that appeals to contemporary forms of neo-colonialism and climate gains, such as the real estate agentscold callingLahaina residents who lost everything in the fire prompting them to sell their ancestral lands instead of waiting for compensation. But it also places these movements in the long and ongoing history of the theft and deception of colonial resources by settlers, making it clear that, while disaster capitalism has some modern guises, it is a very old tactic. A tactic native Hawaiians have a lot of experience with.

Which brings us back to what was in the box that saved Tereari'i, and the place of water at this fateful moment. For more than a century, water in Maui Komohana, the western region of the island, has been extracted for outside interests: first large sugar plantations and, more recently, their successors. The companies — which include West Maui Land Co (WML) and its subsidiaries, as well as Kaanapali Land Management and Maui Land & Pineapple Inc — have devoured the island's natural resources to develop McMansions, colonial-style subdivisions, luxury resorts and sugarcane golf courses. is being cultivated. and once pineapple grew.

This historic and modern plantation economy has especially taken a huge toll on water, draining native ecologies of their natural moisture. Lahaina, once known as the Venice of the Pacific, has been transformed into a parched desert, part of what has made it so vulnerable to fire. Plantation skimming wells dried up Mokuhinia, a freshwater fish pond of at least 15 acres, which fed Moku'ula, an island in the pond that was the seat of the Hawaiian kingdom. Early 20th century, the plantationstuffedMokuhinia with dirt, and eventually a baseball field and a parking lot appeared above the sacred site.

Even long after most of those original plantations closed, the infrastructure and dynamics of water theft persisted. Today, many Native Hawaiian communities, who have lived in Maui Komohana since time immemorial, are still cut off from water for their basic needs, including drinking, laundry, and traditional crop irrigation. For example, Lauren Palakiko, whose family has lived in Kaua'ula for centuries and has priority over water rights under the law, testified in a state speech last year.water committee hearingthat she had towash her baby in a bucketbecause not enough water reached her house. That's because the streams that once flowed through their valley are diverted to upscale subdivisions, which is often the caseoccupy plantation-controlled lands.

Why was there no water to fight the fire in Maui? | Naomi Klein and Kapua'ala Sproat (1)

It is asituationleaving many Indigenous families without access to water mains in the province (which also means no fire hydrants) and no paved roads to escape the fires that arepose an increasing threat to their homes and lives. For example, the native Hawaiian families of the Kaua'ula Valley, which flanks Lahaina, areowed to Launiupoko Irrigation Co(LIC), a subsidiary of WML, because LIC owns the valleysWater system from the plantation era. Almost all of the Kauaʻula Stream is needed to serve the prosperous estates in an adjacent valleyshut off the water completelyto the homes of the Kaua'ula families because it claims there is not enough water to sell to its customers and to meet the water commission's power protection standard.

The climate crisis has only exacerbated these tensions, exacerbated droughts and, as the world now knows, created conditions ripe for wildfires. There have been fires in the past five yearsdevastatedKaua'ula Valley, intensifying the wars over who has the right to access scarce water, including for critical firefighting uses.

In this context where the stakes are high,growing numbers of native Hawaiian communitieshave organized to assert their water rights, who are supposed to have the rightshighest protectionunder Hawaiian law, including the Constitution, Statutory Water Act, andlandmarkHawaii Supreme Court Precedents. Native Hawaiians throughout Maui Komohana have been working with lawyers for nearly thirty years in their search forrestorative justice, most recently with pro bono lawyers, such as Tereari'i, and students ofCloud search centerfor Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law.

Together, the communities have fought for their right to manage their own water, rather than watch it be diverted for often frivolous uses. In June 2022, a historic victory was achieved: responding to the overwhelming demands of native Hawaiians and other residents, the water commission decidedvoted unanimouslyDesignate West Maui as a surface and groundwater management area. According to Hawaii's water code, this is the caseindicationcalls on the commission's licensing authority to protect priority Native Hawaiian rights and the environment from the historic and ongoing overexploitation of water by plantations and developers.

After protracted struggles, and despite predictable opposition from industry, the community and the water commission prevailed and introduced a new licensing system that the community hoped would restore public control over water that had been stolen for more than a century. The Palakiko family and others began filling out applications for water use permits, asking for water for their household needs, such as bathing their babies, as well as water for indigenous farming in swamps.

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But here's the cruelest irony: The deadline for submitting those permit applications to the water commission was Monday, August 7. And the fire that devoured Lahaina was the next day.

The government of Hawaii's governor wasted no time in enacting itemergency proclamationswhich suspended a series of laws, including the "State Water Act of Hawaii, to the extent necessary to respond to the emergency." The estates' successors swung into action, seeking to end the designation process that they had been unable to stop prior to the declaration of the state of emergency. In the days after the fires, WMLdemandedthe water commission has suspended river protection in Maui Komohana — even in areas untouched by fire — andinsinuatedthat the commission's deputy director, Kaleo Manuel, who had been the public face of the commission throughout the designation process, was responsible for the devastating fire. The committee chairman granted the request, allowing the company to divert streams to fill the reservoirs that serve the luxury projects. WML eventually requested that the entire designation process be “suspended and eventually amended”. His own executive in publicdeclared: “I'd like to see it disappear" - a movementsuedby Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake as an attempt to "use this tragedy for cheap advantage."

Then, on Wednesday, while the search for survivors was still in full swing, the government announced that it was “bet againManuel, effectively relieving him of all duties and relegating him to an unknown other post. With this move, the committee no longer has an administrative leader.

This is a classic case of the most dastardly disaster capitalism: a small elite group using a profound human tragedy as a window to undo a hard-fought grassroots victory for water rights, while removing officials who are a political inconvenience to government advocates . developer calendar.

Why was there no water to fight the fire in Maui? | Naomi Klein and Kapua'ala Sproat (2)

Hawaii Governor Josh Green has done just thatparrotedWML blames “water management” as the main culprit because there is not enough water to fight the fires. In words that were perceived by many as inflammatory, he seemed to imply that the fight for water justice was responsible. "It's important that we start being honest," he sayssaid. “People are still fighting in our state right now to give us access to water to fight and prepare for fires, even as more storms develop.”

Many communities in West Mauirefuse to acceptWML's rewriting of history. For example, they know that it was actually high winds that prevented helicopters from fighting the fires, and when they were eventually used, seawater turned out to be more accessible. They also understand that the parched conditions that made the region so vulnerable are a result of more than a year agocentury settler colonialism, in which indigenous resources have been hoarded by the plantations and their successors. As Hawaii's poet laureate, Brandy Nālani McDougall,explainedIf “the water had been allowed to flow, where it was allowed to be created and to continue to feed and care for everyone, this would not have happened”.

If there's any reason to hope, it's that the people of Maui have learned from ittheir history. Yes, there have been irreplaceable historical and cultural artifactslostto the flames, but not to the teachings these artifacts represent. Native Hawaiians know their rights: to remain on their ancestors' lands, to restore water flows to those lands, and to ensure that their native way of life will continue in the face of a climate crisis fueled by colonial looting. These traditional ways of life have historically restored abundance to the islands, while plantation mismanagement has turned the land into a desert. That's why grassroots organizers like Tereari'i snatched up that box of precious papers related to water rights, filled with notes gathered through careful community engagement and consultation.

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This hard-won knowledge is also the reason, once the real estate developers startedcirclestarted local residentsorganizingto invoke disastrous pursuit of profit. Many have also committed to thatsecuring the resourcesneeded to get families back into rebuilt homes – and to be the authors and architects of their own post-disaster reconstruction, a process based onpatriotism, the ethos of deep respect for natural and cultural resources.

That ethos is why water is a public trust in Hawaii, not owned by anyone — not the governor, WML, or even Native Hawaiians with ancestral ties to the resource. Instead, under Indigenous law, water is diligently managed for present and future generations so that everyone can thrive. While this may be politically inconvenient for some, this principle will sustain life on these fragile islands.Lovelandhas enabled native Hawaiians to thrive in Hawaii for a millennium, and it is precisely this kind of biocultural knowledge that is needed to navigate the way forward in a time of climate crisis.

Hawaii is indeed in an emergency, but emergency proclamations are needed for thatmake operationalpatriotism, not those who push this aside by opportunistically suspending unalienable water laws and firing zealous officials. What this governor does next will determine whether Maui Komohana will continue to be a space for Native and other local families like the Palakikos, or whether corporations like WML and its affluent clients will be empowered to continue their takeover of land and water in West Maui. complete.

Right now, the eyes of the world are on Maui, but many don't know where to look. Yes, look at the wreckage, the grieving families, the traumatized children, the burnt artifacts, and donate what you can to community-led groups on the ground. But also look further and further. To the aquifers and streams, and the plantation-era diversion ditches and reservoirs. Because that's where the water is, and whoever controls the water determines the future of Maui.

  • The fee for this item will be donated to help rebuild the Maui Cultural Center, which is operated by Nā 'Āikane o Maui. Also consider supportRed lightning, which currently organizes relief and other support services on Maui.

  • Kapua'ala Sproat is a professor of law at New York UniversityThe world questNative Hawaiian Law Center and the Environmental Law Program. She is also co-director of the Native Hawaiian Rights Clinic at the University of Hawaii at William S. Richardson School of Law in Mānoa.


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