He huewai ola ke kanaka na Kāne.
Man is Kāne’s living water gourd.
Water is life and Kāne is the keeper of water.
— ‘Ōlelo No‘eau #598

Did you know that humans are made mostly of water? It’s true! About two-thirds of our body mass is water. Because our bodies contain so much of it, wai (fresh water) is crucial to our survival.

What is wai?

[Water drop] Photo by Kaōhua Lucas.Wai is the source of all life. Wai nourishes the land. It provides sustenance to plants and animals. Wai keeps our bodies strong and healthy.

Wai is found everywhere in nature. Wai filters through porous rocks. Clouds laden with wai drench the earth. Vibrant rainbows are showered by rain. Early morning dew nestles on blades of grass. Wai shrouds mountain ridges giving life to the earth below. Wai is connected to birth and growth.

How is the god Kāne connected to wai?

Wai is one of the greatest gifts given to kānaka by the gods. It is not just a resource to fuel the human body. Wai represents the gods themselves. Wai is the body form, or kinolau, of the god Kāne.

There are many stories about Kāne and wai. Kāne would often travel throughout Hawaiʻi with his companion, Kanaloa. They were known for opening freshwater springs.

On their travels, they would stop to rest and prepare a batch of ʻawa to drink. Some of the places they visited were hot and dry. If there was no water to be found, they would plunge their digging sticks into the earth. A spring would bubble up from where they pierced the earth.

The travels of Kāne and Kanaloa throughout Hawaiʻi helped create water sources to sustain life and benefit all living things.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s water is salty or otherwise undrinkable, and 2 percent is frozen, leaving only 1 percent for all of our needs—from drinking water to growing crops, to fighting fires and washing dishes.

How did wai benefit the community?

[Māla kalo] Photo by Kaōhua Lucas.In ancient Hawaiʻi, wai was available to everyone. No one “owned” the water. Kānaka relied on springs and streams as their water source. Kalo (taro) was their main food staple. Loʻi kalo (taro fields) required a constant flow of fresh water. A luna wai (water manager) managed and distributed water to everyone so that crops and fishponds could flourish.

Streams and native stream life made significant contributions to the community. The constant flow of water from uka to kai would allow stream animals to complete their life cycle. The ʻoʻopu (goby), ʻōpae (shrimp), and hīhīwai (grainy snail) were important sources of food. These organisms would reproduce, providing additional food for the community.

Who regulated water use?

[Kahawai] Photo by Kaōhua Lucas.Before 1778, water flowed continuously from uka to kai. Streams provided drinking water. They also nourished loʻi kalo and fishponds. Streams replenished groundwater supplies and brought nutrients from the uplands to feed fishponds below. Streams were the pathway for native stream life to migrate between ocean and streams, which allowed the completion of their life cycle.

Water was very important to the land and the people. Laws (kānāwai) were developed to properly manage freshwater sources. The konohiki (the person that the aliʻi puts in charge of an ahupuaʻa) of each ahupuaʻa appointed a luna wai. The luna wai was responsible for distributing water within the ahupuaʻa. ʻOhana also were expected to manage freshwater sources. It was their kuleana. They believed it to be a privilege and responsibility.

The konohiki and luna wai relied on the makaʻāinana to work the land. Most konohiki treated makaʻāinana fairly. The konohiki knew that the makaʻāinana were free to leave the ahupuaʻa if they were not satisfied. The konohiki understood that without a strong work force the ahupuaʻa could not thrive. And so water disputes were rare.

How is wai being managed today?

Wai is the most precious resource of kānaka, and so the word “waiwai” means of great value or worth. Kānaka believe that water is a community resource. It is to be shared and used responsibly. Water gives life to food, plants, and kalo. The gods would always provide wai so long as it was not misused.

But in the late 1700s, hoofed animals such as cattle and goats were introduced to the islands. They polluted streams with their waste. They removed plants, causing soil to wash into streams and out to sea. Native forests were also cut back to make room for farms and grazing animals. The hard soil was unable to soak up water. Less water was draining into streams and underground water supplies.

The ahupuaʻa system began to change. Water that used to flow abundantly to feed loʻi and fishponds was being diverted. Large amounts of wai were being used to irrigate sugar and rice fields. The ancient ʻauwai (waterways) fell into disrepair. Small farms were replaced by large plantations. People began to move to the drier leeward side of the islands since water was being made readily available through the diversion of water from the windward side. Water had become a private resource.

[Auwai] Photo by Kaōhua Lucas.Eventually new laws were passed. Water could no longer be privately owned. Wai became a resource protected by the government.

Today, many groups practice traditional concepts of water management. Small farms and residents cooperate to conserve water. Community groups are involved in stream cleanups. Others are removing sediment buildup in streams to make it more accessible for stream life whose life cycles depend on streams and oceans. Invasive plants are being removed and replaced with native plants to decrease soil erosion. More community groups are becoming active. They see the need to mālama, or care, for this precious resource. E ola ka wai!

It takes 10,000 gallons of water to irrigate one acre of sugarcane. Producing one pound of sugar requires 4,000 gallons of water. That’s enough to supply 80 homes with water for a day.

During the Civil War, Northerners could not get sugar from the South. The price of sugar skyrocketed 800 percent. Hawaiʻi sugar planters saw this as an opportunity. In 1857, there were five sugar plantations in Hawaiʻi. By 1884, there were ninety planters, plantations, and mills. The desire of some large sugar planters to continue increasing their profits contributed to the Bayonet Constitution and the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Ka Wai A Kāne

The following is a well-known mele that asks (and answers), “Where is the water of Kāne?” If we don’t mālama i ka wai, we will be asking ourselves the same question.

He mele no Kāne

He ui, he nīnauA query, a question
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe I put to you:
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?Where is the water of Kāne?
Aia i ka hikina a ka lā In the east
Puka i Haʻehaʻe          Where the sun comes in at Haʻehaʻe
Aia i laila ka wai a KāneThere is the water of Kāne
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoeA question I ask of you:
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?Where is the water of Kāne?
Aia i KaulanaakalāOut there with the floating sun
I ka pae ʻōpua i ke kaiWhere the cloud forms rest on ocean’s breast
Ea mai ana ma NīhoaUplifting their forms at Nīhoa
Ma ka mole mai o LehuaThis side the base of Lehua
Aia i laila ka wai a KāneThere is the water of Kāne
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoeOne question I put to you:
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?Where is the water of Kāne?
Aia i ke kuahiwi, i ke kualonoThere on the mountain peak, on the ridges steep
I ke awāwa, i ke kahawaiIn the valleys deep, where the rivers sweep
Aia i laila ka wai a KāneThere is the water of Kāne
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoeThis question I ask of you:
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?Where, indeed, is the water of Kāne?
Aia i kai, i ka moanaThere, at sea, on the ocean
I ke kualau, i ke ānuenueIn the driving rain, in the heavenly rainbow
I ka pūnohu, i ka ua kokoIn the piled-up mist-wreath, in the blood-red rainfall
I ka ʻālewalewaIn the ghost-pale cloud form
Aia i laila ka wai a KāneThere is the water of Kāne
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoe One question I put to you:
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?Where, where is the water of Kāne?
Aia i luna ka wai a KāneUp on high is the water of Kāne
I ke ʻōuli, i ke ao ʻeleʻeleIn the heavenly blue, in the black piled cloud
I ke ao panopanoIn the black-black cloud
I ke ao pōpolohua mea a
Kāne lā ē
In the black-mottled sacred cloud of
Aia i laila ka wai a KāneThere is the water of Kāne
E ui aku ana au iā ʻoeOne question I ask of you:
Aia i hea ka wai a Kāne?Where flows the water of Kāne?
Aia i lalo, i ka honua, i ka wai hūDeep in the ground, in the gushing spring
I ka wai kau a Kāne me KanaloaIn the water of Kāne and Kanaloa
He wai puna, he wai e inuA well-spring of water, to drink
He wai e mana, He wai e olaA water of magic power, the water of life
E ola nō, ʻeā!Life!


[Lehua] Photo by Kaōhua Lucas. [Water on lehua] Photo by Kaōhua Lucas.