Our Sacred Relationship with Water

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Fresh potable (drinkable) water direct to our homes is a precious resource that many people take for granted until it is gone. Ask anyone whose water supply to the home has been abruptly shut down due to a nearby water main break. You can no longer just turn on a faucet and watch clean drinking water come splashing out. Toilets cannot be flushed without replenishing the depleted water in the toilet tank. Baths and showers must be postponed. Meals that require water for preparation – think uncooked rice or pasta – have to be reconsidered, and dirty dishes may have to stay put in the sink until the water is turned back on. Of course, forget about using the washing machine or watering the plants and yard, two big water-guzzling activities.

If residents are lucky enough to have a Board of Water Supply mobile water tank parked in the neighborhood, they can bring their own jugs to the tank and then lug them back to the house for at least some temporary relief. That limited supply of water, however, has to be carefully rationed for only the most important purposes, with care not to waste any in the process. The same goes for whatever bottled water is available, which suddenly becomes a valuable asset when faced with the unanticipated household drought.

Not long ago, this happened on my street in Kaimukï not once, but twice, within the span of a few days when water mains across the street broke on two separate days. Water was turned off for an entire day each time with very little warning. Intellectually I knew we had no water coming to the house, but I repeatedly kept turning on the water faucets, simply out of habit, only to find nothing exiting the pipe. Even though I knew the situation was temporary, it still provoked feelings of anxiety. How long would we have to live this way? What if someday in the future we have to go days, even weeks, without water to the home?

When the water supply was finally restored in the evening, I wanted to shout “Hallelujah!” at the top of my lungs. The experience made me appreciate how fortunate we are to have such easy and convenient access to water here in Hawai‘i — a privilege that many in the world, especially in developing countries, still lack. Sadly, we don’t have to look that far to see a community deprived of essential water resources. Our fellow citizens – men, women and children — living in military housing in the Red Hill district of O‘ahu know firsthand the consequences of contaminated drinking water.

The situation also reminded me how important it is not to waste water, especially now that the Board of Water Supply had to shut down its ‘Aiea and Hälawa wells in an abundance of caution to avoid possible fuel contamination from the Red Hill fuel leak. We share the island’s water supply after all with every other resident on O‘ahu. If too many people use too much water and the supply dwindles, we all suffer in the long run if more drastic measures have to be taken.

The Japanese garden at the East-West Center
The Japanese garden at the East-West Center in Honolulu features a stream that meanders at three different levels, symbolizing a journey that starts in the mountains, flows to the plains, and empties out into the sea. (Photo by Kevin Y. Kawamoto)

Thank You Ernie Lau

The Feb. 4, 2022, issue of The Hawai‘i Herald featured an excellent cover story by Kristen Nemoto Jay about the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s Chief Engineer and Manager Ernest “Ernie” Lau, who in recent months found himself thrusted into the public spotlight as a vocal advocate and protector of the pure, clean water stored in — and drawn from — O‘ahu’s precious underground aquifer system.

Lau takes his responsibility as a steward of this water supply very seriously; the people of Hawai‘i should be eternally grateful. In the midst of the chaos and controversy following the U.S. Navy’s disclosure that its underground jet fuel storage tanks were responsible for contaminating the water supplied to thousands of residents in military housing last November, Lau has repeatedly renewed his calls on the Navy to defuel and decommission its fuel storage facilities on Red Hill. Every day that this is delayed is a risk to the island’s precious aquifer system, which is only about a hundred feet under the Navy’s aging storage tanks in Red Hill. Contamination of the aquifer would be an unimaginable environmental and economic disaster to the entire state of Hawai‘i.

At a Feb. 11 group press conference, on the grounds of Hawai‘i’s State Capitol, BWS’s Lau proclaimed, “No more contamination of our wai [water]. We will protect this wai as long as we live here on this island.” It is a message he has been spreading for years, at least as far back as 2014 when he was alerted about a 27,000-gallon fuel leak from the same Red Hill facility currently under scrutiny. 

Hawaiian culture has a phrase that has been invoked many times since the Red Hill crisis – ka wai ola, the waters of life. It’s a poetic and beautiful reminder that water is not just a molecule consisting of two atoms of hydrogen (H) joined to a single atom of oxygen (O). Water is much more than that, as religions and cultures of the world have known for thousands of years.

On March 7, the U.S. Department of Defense Secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, announced the defueling and the permanent closure of the Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility. According to Hawaii News Now, the process of emptying the tanks and closing the facility could take a year or more (hawaiinewsnow.com/2022/03/07/pentagon-expected-announce-permanent-closure-red-hill-facility-amid-water-crisis).

On a more individual and personal level, we are water. About 60% of the average adult human body’s weight is water, according to the United States Geological Survey’s Water Science School. It is an even higher percentage for babies and children. In short, what’s inside of us has a direct connection with what’s outside of us. We need water to live, grow and be healthy.

Water is Sacred: An Ancient Philosophy

The philosophy of having to protect our clean drinking water because it is a shared collective resource that is vital to life — human, plant and animal — runs deep throughout history dating back to ancient times and is particularly embedded in the world of indigenous peoples who live close to the land and see the obvious interconnections in the web of life. Whether spoken about literally, symbolically or metaphorically, water has held a prominent place in the cultural and spiritual dimensions of diverse societies all over the world. Since the beginning of time, humans have recognized the significance of water to their livelihood and survival.

In Hawai‘i, the kalo or taro plant holds a sacred place in indigenous culture and represents the connection between the Hawaiian people and nature as described in the “Kumulipo,” the Hawaiian creation story. Kalo needs clean, fresh flowing water to thrive, which the lo‘i (flooded field) provides. As kalo was a nutritional staple of ancient Hawaiians, the water that gave life to kalo also gave life to those who lived off the land, all of which had to be protected and cared for.

Kalo needs clean, fresh flowing water to thrive, which the lo‘i (flooded field) provides. (Photo by Jodie Ching)

Water is prevalent in western creation stories as well. In the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, water is mentioned in the very first chapter of Genesis, verse 2: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” In the telling of this creation story, water existed before the creation of night and day, land, plants, animals and humans. Water was touched and used by God on the first day of creation. Biblical scholars have noted that water is referenced in the Judeo-Christian Bible more than 700 times, and that water has profound symbolic significance in the passages of Holy Scripture.

In contemporary Christianity, water is used for blessings, rites of baptism and other rituals, especially related to cleansing and purification. In Catholic churches and cathedrals, a holy water font is typically located near the entrance for parishioners to use upon entering the dwelling. In the Catholic liturgical mass, a few drops of water are mixed into a chalice of wine, which believers understand will be changed — or transubstantiated — into the actual blood of Christ as part of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Temizuya — purification ritual in Toshogu Shrine, Japan. (Photo by Dimitry B./flickr.com)

In Shintö, the native religion of Japan, water also figures prominently in rituals of cleansing. Before passing under a gate, or torii, which marks the entrance to the sacred grounds of a shrine, visitors are expected to ritually purify themselves by stopping at a hand-washing basin area called a temizuya to wash their hands and rinse their mouths using long-handled dippers called hishaku to prepare themselves for crossing over into the sacred space.

Beyond the Shintö shrines, however, the ancient Japanese people perceived a spiritual force (kami) in nature — mountains, trees, rivers, waterfalls, animals, the wind and so forth — worthy of acknowledgment and reverence. Among the many different kami, or spiritual forces, is Suijin, which is a kami associated with water. The ancient and even contemporary belief systems of many indigenous communities also saw spiritual forces in the natural world. Indeed, the “other than human” world was richly infused with life energy that could be harnessed for good health and healing.

It makes sense that water played a central role in this broad and interconnected web-of-life worldview. Human civilization is said to have been born between two rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia. Known as the Fertile Crescent, this region of the world is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” For obvious reasons, early human communities evolved in close proximity to rivers and other bodies of fresh water. Water provides nourishment for people, plants and animals. Water can be managed for agricultural irrigation, transportation pathways and energy production. Water is used for cooking, bathing, recreation, worship, aquaculture and putting out fires. It is no wonder that so many cultures in the ancient world have revered fresh water in its various forms — rain, snow, glaciers, rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, reservoirs, waterfalls, aquifers and so on — to the point of envisioning them as the embodiment of life energy.

Contaminated water, however, can sicken and kill, and unfortunately there are also many examples of how water that has been polluted and neglected has resulted in human and environmental tragedy. Industrial pollution in Minamata, Japan (in Kumamoto Prefecture), for decades led to devastating neurological diseases suffered by children, adults and animals caused by the release of toxic chemicals from the factory’s wastewater discharge. Detected in the 1950s, the infamous “Minamata disease” and the environmental pollution that it caused also destroyed the fisheries in Minamata Bay, a key source of food for the local population and source of income for fishermen. Ironically, the disease also divided the community, a segment of which did not want the offending chemical company to be criticized by victims of Minamata disease because of the central role that the company had as an employer in the community.

More recently, elevated lead levels in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, resulted in a public health crisis due to about 100,000 people who were exposed to the contaminated water, including many thousands of children. Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of lead poisoning, which could lead to intellectual, developmental, behavioral and neurological disorders. In this case, the elevated lead levels were the result of the metal leeching from old lead pipes that were not properly retrofitted when a new water source was used for the community’s drinking water.

Climate change is also taking a toll on the availability of fresh water in various parts of the world, including the United States. A report brief in the journal Nature Climate Change says that the “megadrought” in the southwestern United States over the past 22 years was the driest 22-year period since 800 A.D. “No other 22-year period since at least 1901 was as dry or as hot,” the article reported. It went on to say that “aridity” has dominated the 2000s, “as evidenced by declines in two of North America’s largest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, both on the Colorado River.” Climate change was not solely responsible for the megadrought conditions but its role was significant. Although there was some rain during the 22-year-period, the overall conditions were drought-like in the extreme, and 2022 is expected to bring more of the same in that part of the country.

Extreme drought and water scarcity was addressed in the fictional “Mad Max” movies that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the post-apocalyptic world depicted in this film, human civilization collapses and anarchy rules when resources like water and fuel become scarce. Transnational companies end up controlling the world’s water supply, creating two classes of wealth: those who have water, and those who do not. Those who have water belong to the wealthy class and can flaunt their water access by wasting it in vulgar and ostentatious ways, while those who lack water live on the brink of death, desperate for some water however they can get it. Life depicted in these films is about as close to a hell on earth as one can get.

Protect the Water, Protect Our Future

Some predict that the way things are going we are moving toward a world of clean water scarcity. We’re not there yet and can avoid it if our relationship to water changes from taking it for granted to regarding it as the precious, sacred and life-enhancing resource as it is. In other words, if we can view water in the way that our ancestors did and in the way that so many who live in close connection with the natural world do today. 

Whether one chooses to think of pure clean water as literally embodying a life force, or just symbolically representing something that energizes all living things, our relationship with water must become more of serious stewardship than of an unthinking consumer if our water resources are to be protected. Collectively we are responsible for taking care of this shared resource for both our current generation and for future ones. It is time to reignite and spread this ancient wisdom of water being sacred. There are people far and wide in the world, and certainly here in Hawai‘i, who are committed to this philosophy and see themselves as being stewards and guardians of the fresh water supply. If more people do so, this life-giving resource might last indefinitely and the dystopian world of the Mad Max movies can remain in the fictional realm of entertainment where it belongs.

Churches and temples can do their part. As water is depicted as sacred in many religious and spiritual belief systems and holy scriptures, what better organizations to stand up for water protection? The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt, Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ, wrote on a UCC website about the need “to protect and defend our sacred, life-giving waters. We can defend waters that so often suffer not just from chemical toxins but from social toxins. We can defend waters that so often suffer not just from government neglect but a government beholden to the interests of the rich and powerful.”

The late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has written that change will come when people fall in love with the Earth. “We need to change our way of thinking and seeing things,” he wrote for a Paris Climate Talk speech in 2015. “We need to realize that the Earth is not just our environment. The Earth is not something outside of us. Breathing with mindfulness and contemplating your body, you realize that you are the Earth. You realize that your consciousness is also the consciousness of the Earth. Look around you — what you see is not your environment, it is you.”

The late Japanese researcher and best-selling author Dr. Masaru Emoto believed that the molecular structure of water changed when exposed to human thoughts, words, sounds, emotions and intentions. His popular book, “The Hidden Messages in Water,” contains high-speed photographs that he said shows the structure of water at the moment of freezing, which creates a design formation of water crystals that are affected by positive and negative thoughts. Whether this finding stands up to rigorous scientific scrutiny is an open question, but his underlying point is well taken. We should drink clean, pure water with a positive attitude of gratitude, love and joy for optimum health benefits. Water should not be consumed thoughtlessly or with a negative attitude. In short, we should care about the water outside of our bodies as well as the water that we put into our bodies.

In a recent episode of “Soko Ga Japan” on KIKU-TV, the host visited the city of Tsugaru in Aomori Prefecture, Japan, and came across a young man happily foraging for wild vegetables in the mountains. With the knowledge gained from accompanying his father on these foraging expeditions as a child, the young man now wandered up the mountain slopes on his own, stopping here and there to add a plant to his basket of wild vegetation, free for the picking. In one close-up shot, the camera showed him cutting a small plant with a knife above the roots. The young man said, “You leave the roots.” In time the plant will regrow and he or some other forager will be able to pick the new growth, again leaving the roots in the soil. This simple act demonstrated how the young man had learned how to take from the bounty of nature without decimating Her gifts.

Clean water, too, is a gift from nature. Although most of us get it out of the faucet, it lives in our underground aquifers until it is ready to be used. But it also lives in the clouds, in the rain, in our rivers and streams, in fog and in our ponds and reservoirs. It could take up to 25 years “for rain water to percolate to these underground aquifers and make its way to your tap,” according a Board of Water Supply handout.

The Sierra Club of Hawai‘i has said that since the Red Hill fuel storage facility’s construction in 1943, about 180,000 gallons of fuel has leaked into the surrounding environment. The aging storage facility holds 20 massive underground fuel storage tanks with the potential of holding 12.5 million gallons of fuel EACH. That’s a total of 250 million gallons of fuel sitting a hundred feet above a main drinking water aquifer.

That water is in danger, and all living things that depend on that water are likewise in danger. People of differing backgrounds and beliefs have come together in the past to find common ground on issues that they believe in: peace, human rights, social justice. Add one more: Clean water in our underground aquifers. Love it or lose it.

Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.

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