The civic group, Oʻahu Water Protectors, formed in October 2021 to preserve the island’s water sources and raise awareness of the risks they face, particularly from the US Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility which sits atop the island’s aquifer.
Just one month after its creation, the group’s worst fears came true when a large fuel spill occurred at the underground facility, contaminating the drinking water for 93,000 people and threatening the sole source aquifer of the entire island.
Since then, Oʻahu Water Protectors have been staging protests to demand the immediate closure of the Red Hill facility and the military be held accountable for its contamination. In December 2021, they organized a die-in outside the Hawaiʻi State Capitol in Honolulu where people lay down to emphasise the deadly impact of contamination; one year later, following a spill of PFAS firefighting foam at Red Hill, Oʻahu Water Protectors and other groups led a six-kilometer “Walk for Wai” (“wai” is Hawaiian for “water”) where marchers were joined by Ernie Lau, the manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.
Dani Espiritu, who has been a member of the group since summer 2022, said that education and advocacy are some of Oʻahu Water Protectors’ key activities. They join panel discussions and explain to the community the political processes via which the military can be held accountable; members have also created courses for schools to explain the importance of Oʻahu’s aquifer.
“We live on an island. The rain that falls this morning will take 20 years to reach the aquifer. Then it will come up as springs which become the head of streams and rivers. That water goes into the ocean. So everything that happens to the aquifer will eventually make its way throughout the island and that effects our agriculture, too.”
Espiritu is a member of the Hoʻōla Hou iā Kalauao, a community farm which grows taro, a sacred Hawaiian staple, in water-filled fields. According to US military hazard maps, the farm would be impacted by any future fuel spill from the Red Hill facility and, recently, PFAS contamination has been discovered nearby. Espiritu is concerned that, without swift change, it is only a matter of time until the farm itself is damaged.
Military operations have contaminated Hawaiʻi’s environment in various ways. According to official records, at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, there are approximately 700 seriously contaminated sites, aka Superfund sites. Espiritu’s family is from the district and when she visits places where her family had fished for generations, today, there are signs warning people not to eat the shellfish due to contamination.
Hawaiʻi was an independent kingdom until its government was overthrown by a US-backed coup d’état in 1893, then illegally annexed five years later. In 1959, Hawaiʻi became a US state. Today, there are approximately 141 military facilities on Oʻahu alone, occupying roughly one quarter of the island. Pro-military pundits assert this heavy presence protects Hawaiʻi from potential enemies, such as China; Espiritu disagrees.
“All of the things we might fear from a ‘foreign invasion’ are already happening. Our islands and sacred sites have been bombed, our people removed from our lands, our main water source has been poisoned, our people are recruited to go off to war, our women go missing and suffer abuse from military service members, our language was outlawed, our elders were beaten for speaking anything other than English, and our culture and identity is constantly challenged. For us, the United States is the foreign invader.”
With their parallel histories of occupation, human rights violations and military contamination, Okinawans and Hawaiians should work together to achieve justice, said Espiritu.
“We know the health of our island, the health of our water, and the health of our lands are directly tied to the health and wellbeing of our people. For indigenous folk we love our community and our ʻāina (Hawaiian for “land”). What does love look like when remaining there makes us sick? People in Okinawa understand that, and we can build solidarity based on that common struggle and love of ʻāina.”