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

AOn Maui, golf courses glow emerald green, hotels manage to fill their swimming pools and companies store water to sell to luxury properties. And yet, when it came time to fight the fires, some hoses went dry. Why?

The reason is the long battle for West Maui's most precious natural resource: water. So, on Tuesday, August 8, while fleeing the fires in Lahaina, Tereari'i Chandler-'Īao grabbed a bag of clothes, some food – and something rather unconventional: a box full of applications for water use permits. .

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

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She also knew something else: that the only force that could stop the theft would be the 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 well-worn tactic of exploiting moments of extreme collective trauma to quickly pass unpopular laws that benefit a small elite – relies on this vicious dynamic. As Lee Cataluna, a journalist native to Maui,got thatlately, those on the front lines of disasters have necessarily focused on “survival issues”. Adverts. Services. Instructions. Employees. Go here for fuel. Check this list to see if your husband's name is on it” – not about coercive real estate transactions or backroom politics. This is precisely why this tactic often works.

Disaster capitalism has taken many forms in different contexts. In New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, immediate steps were taken to replace public schools with charter schools and to demolish public housing projects to make way for mansion gentrification. In Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria in 2017, these were public schoolsagainbesieged and there was an attempt to privatize the electricity grid before the storm hit the mainland. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, valuable seaside land previously managed by fishermen and small-scale farmers was destroyed after the 2004 tsunami.confiscatedby property developers while their rightful residents were trapped in evacuation camps.

It's always a little different, which is why some native Hawaiians have taken to calling their unique version a slightly different term: plantation disaster capitalism. It is a name that appeals to contemporary forms of neocolonialism and climate achievements, such as real estate agentscold callLahaina residents who lost everything in the fire, which caused them to sell their ancestral lands rather than wait for compensation. But it also places these movements in the long and continuing history of colonist theft and fraud of colonial resources, making it clear that while disaster capitalism has some modern appearances, it is a very old tactic. A tactic native Hawaiians are very experienced with.

Which brings us back to what was in the box that saved Tereari'i, and the place of water at that fateful moment. For more than a century, water in Maui Komohana, the island's western region, has been extracted for outside interests: first the big sugar plantations and, more recently, their successors. 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 housing developments, luxury resorts and golf courses. of sugar cane. courses. is being cultivated. and once the pineapple has grown.

This historic and modern plantation economy has had a huge impact on water, draining natural moisture from native ecologies. Lahaina, once known as the Venice of the Pacific, has been turned into an arid desert, part of what made it so vulnerable to fire. The plantation's extraction wells dried up Mokuhinia, a freshwater fish pond of at least 15 acres, which fed Moku'ula, an island in the lake that was the seat of the Hawaiian kingdom. At the beginning of the 20th century, the plantationstuffedMokuhinia with land and eventually a baseball field and parking lot appeared above the sacred site.

Even long after most of the original plantations were closed, the infrastructure and dynamics of water theft persisted. Today, many Native Hawaiian communities, who have lived on Maui Komohana since time immemorial, still lack access to water for their basic needs, including drinking, washing, and traditional irrigation of crops. For example, Lauren Palakiko, whose family has lived on Kaua'ula for centuries and takes precedence over water rights under the law, testified at a state address last year.water committee hearingthat she had towash your baby in a bucketbecause not enough water was coming to his house. This is because the streams that used to flow through its valley are diverted to noble subdivisions, which often happensoccupy land controlled by plantations.

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

It is asituationleaving many indigenous families without access to water networks in the province (which also means there are no fire hydrants) and without paved roads to escape the fires that are raging.pose a growing threat to their homes and lives. For example, the native Hawaiian families of the Kaua'ula Valley, which flanks Lahaina, aredue to Launiupoko Irrigation Co.(LIC), a subsidiary of WML, because LIC owns the vouchersPlantation-era water system. Almost all of the Kaua'ula Creek is needed to serve the prosperous estates in an adjacent valley.turn off the water completelyto the homes of Kaua'ula families because he claims there is not enough water to sell to his customers and to meet the water commission's energy protection standards.

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 last five yearsdevastatedKaua'ula Valley, intensifying wars over who has the right to access scarce water, including for critical firefighting uses.

In this context where the risks are high,a growing number of native Hawaiian communitiesorganized themselves to assert their rights to water, which should have the rightshighest protectionunder Hawaiian law, including the Constitution, the Statutory Water andmarcoHawaii Supreme Court precedents. The native Hawaiians of Maui Komohana have worked with attorneys for nearly thirty years in search ofrestorative justice, most recently with pro bono lawyers like Tereari'i and students fromCloud Research Centerof Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law.

Together, communities fought for their right to manage their own water, rather than see it diverted to often frivolous uses. In June 2022, a historic victory was achieved: Responding to overwhelming demands from native Hawaiians and other residents, the water commission decided tovoted unanimouslyDesignate West Maui as a surface and groundwater management area. According to Hawaii's water code, this is the caserecommendationurges the commission's licensing authority to protect the overriding rights of Native Hawaiians and the environment from historic and continuing overexploitation of water by plantations and developers.

After prolonged struggles, and in the face of predictable industry opposition, the community and water commission prevailed and introduced a new licensing system that the community hoped would restore public control over water that had been stolen for over a century. The Palakiko family and others began filing applications for water permits, asking for water for domestic needs such as bathing babies, as well as water for indigenous agriculture in the swamps.

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

The government of the Governor of Hawaii wasted no time in enacting itemergency proclamationswhich suspended a number of laws, including the "Hawaii State Water Act, to the extent necessary to respond to the emergency". The successors of the estates took action, seeking to put an end to the designation process that they were unable to stop before the declaration of the state of emergency. In the days following the fires, the WMLdemandedthe water commission suspended river protection in Maui Komohana – even in areas untouched by fire – andhintedthat the deputy director of the commission, Kaleo Manuel, who was the public face of the commission throughout the designation process, was responsible for the devastating fire. The chairman of the committee complied with the request, allowing the company to divert streams to fill the reservoirs that serve the luxury developments. WML eventually requested that the entire designation process be "put on hold and eventually amended." Your own executive in publicdeclared: “I would like to see it disappear" - a movementprocessedby 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 removing him from all functions and relegating him to another unknown position. With this change, the committee no longer has an administrative leader.

This is a classic case of disaster capitalism at its most cowardly: a small elite group using a profound human tragedy as a window to undo a hard-won popular victory for water rights, while removing officials who are a political inconvenience to government supporters. developer calendar.

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

Hawaii Governor Josh Green did just thatparrotWML blames “water management” as the main culprit because there is not enough water to fight the fires. In words that were considered by many to be inflammatory, he seemed to suggest that the fight for water justice was responsible. “It's important that we start being honest,” he says.these. “People are still struggling in our state right now to give us access to water to fight and prepare for fires even as more storms come in.”

Many communities in West Mauirefuse to acceptThe rewriting of history by WML. For example, they know that it was strong winds that prevented helicopters from fighting the fires, and when they were finally deployed, seawater proved to be more accessible. They also understand that the arid conditions that made the region so vulnerable are a result of more than a year ago.colonialism of century settlers, in which indigenous resources were accumulated by plantations and their successors. As Hawaii Poet Laureate Brandy Nālani McDougallexplainedIf “it had allowed the water to flow, where it was allowed to create it and continue to feed and care for everyone, this would not have happened”.

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

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

It is in that spirit that water is a public asset in Hawaii, and belongs to no one – not the governor, the WML, not even the native Hawaiians with ancestral ties to the resource. Instead, under indigenous law, water is diligently managed for present and future generations so that all can prosper. While this may be politically inconvenient for some, this principle will sustain life on these fragile islands.land of lovehas allowed 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 to do so.make operationalpatriotism, not those who brush it aside, opportunistically suspending inalienable water laws and firing zealous officials. What this governor does next will determine whether Maui Komohana remains a space for Native and other local families like the Palakikos, or whether companies like WML and their wealthy clients will be empowered to continue their land acquisitions. 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 bereaved families, the traumatized children, the burned artifacts, and donate what you can to community-led groups on the ground. But also look further and further afield. For the aquifers and streams, and for the plantation-era diversion ditches and reservoirs. Because that's where the water is, and whoever controls the water determines Maui's future.

  • 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 the supportred lightning, which currently organizes relief and other support services on Maui.

  • Kapua'ala Sproat is a professor of law at New York University.in search of the worldNative 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 the William S. Richardson School of Law in Mānoa.


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