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Hawaii Locals Warn of ‘Catastrophe’ As Freshwater Supplies Run Dry

Windmills at Kahuku on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
Source: Flip Flops Hawaii/Wikimedia

Hawaii, a chain of islands surrounded by large quantities of the ocean, is now in big trouble as multiple threats descend upon the only source of freshwater on Oahu, one of its largest islands.

Freshwater supplies on Oahu rely on a single underground aquifer to deliver water to locals, tourists, and other island residents. Replenishing the aquifer takes years, and it is estimated that a single drop of water will take 25 years to make it into the aquifer from the sky.

Compounding this issue is the changing climate in the area, which has seen significantly less rain and scarier droughts. The area has also experienced contamination from jet fuel leaks and PFAS chemical spills which have affected water supplies on Oahu.

All these factors add up to increase the frustration of locals when they see freshwater being misused.

In March, the world’s largest wave pool opened to the public on Oahu, and it operates with a continuous supply of freshwater.

“They’re not using it to drink or to support life, they’re using it to make money. They’re commodifying it,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, a Native Hawaiian and a member of advocacy group O’ahu Water Protectors. “We are on the verge of a greater catastrophe.”

Locals are worried that the crisis is not being taken seriously enough and that tough decisions will need to be made in the coming months where people may get denied water.

“We are in a water crisis, that has to be made very clear,” Wayne Tanaka, director of Sierra Club of Hawai’i, told CBS News.”We may come to a point where we have to decide … who gets water and who doesn’t.”

Because of its location, rainfall averages across the state of Hawaii can vary widely. It can range from just 8 inches to more than 400 inches per year, according to Thomas Giambelluca, director of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa Water Resources Research Center.

“We have the problem of getting water to where it’s needed from where it can be found,” Giambelluca said. “…When the rain doesn’t come, we don’t have any second chance, we don’t have any other way to get our water supply. We can’t pipe it from a nearby state.”

This leaves Hawaii residents unable to properly anticipate how much rain they will be getting, and because of Hawaii’s location, it is difficult to import water to make up for a shortfall.

Ironically many places in Hawaii are surrounded on all sides by ocean water, but turning that into drinkable water is against the state’s goals.

“That’s not the preferred way to get drinking water,” said Giambelluca. “It’s very energy-intensive, and so that would be in opposition to our goals of reducing our dependency on fossil fuels in Hawaii, reducing our emissions.”

Another concern experts have besides the threat of droughts is that ocean levels continue to rise. As ocean water is able to more easily penetrate underground freshwater supplies, it makes them no longer clean.

“Water quality and water quantity are tied together,” Giambelluca said. “…Water contamination is always going to impact water quantity, water availability.”


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