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Got Water?

A grassroots effort to increase, catch and store rainwater on Molokai

Kanawai. Ka-na-wai literally means “belonging-to-the-waters”. Under traditional Hawaiian law it meant the equal sharing of water. The Hawaiian people planted taro farms along water systems shared by everyone. A farmer took as much as he needed, then closed his inlet so the next farmer could get his share of water. This meant using only what was needed and looking out for your neighbor’s needs. Unfortunately for the island of Moloka’i (and most of her sister islands) the big agricultural corporations that use the majority of the island’s water reserves, “got no Kanawai”. This didn’t sit well with Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison when he spent time on Molokai twenty plus years ago, and next month we’ll let the people of Molokai know that it doesn’t sit well with us (PRI USA).

Few realize that due to deforestation and overuse by corporate farms, Molokai is facing a water shortage of epic proportions. Reserves intended for farms on Hawaiian Homelands are being over-tapped by industrial farms, resulting in shortages of available water for family farms. We can try and fight the man and push for better legislation on water use, or we can dig in and share what we already know. Bill Mollison has taught volumes on creating and harvesting rainwater. Rather than waste our time chasing windmills (another subject entirely), we’ve decided to put his knowledge to work.


click for full view

Volumes can, should, and have been written on the subject of deforestation and resulting droughts. In the name of ranching and industrial agriculture, thousands of acres of trees have been removed from Molokai’s leeward (western) side. Easter Island serves as a prime example of how an island (or any land) can’t survive without trees to attract and re-circulate rain. Ocean surface water evaporates into air, where wind blows inland. Of the rain that falls, 25% again re-evaporates from tree crown leaves and 50% is transpired, adding moisture to clouds. These clouds travel on inland to rain again. From this process, trees multiply actual rainfall. As air rises inland, precipitation and condensation increases.

In nature, even domesticated animals have the instinct to find drinking water. Large leaves serve as water bowls, providing sufficient water for any animal intelligent enough to gather it. As humans, our intelligence is often lacking in such matters. But, through earthworks, such as swales, we can catch rainwater and reduce evaporation. Swales are passive rainwater harvesting features, built as a series of ditches on contour to the landscape. Each swale has a soft mound of uncompacted soil and organic material on its downslope outer bank. Swales collect and hold residual rainwater, soaking it into the ground and the associated swale mound. They also re-charge groundwater. Trees, an essential element to swale systems, are planted along the banks. Their roots condition and aerate soil and they make transpiration possible. Even minimally sloped landscape (nearly flat) can efficiently store scarce rainfall, and create gardens from desert. Catch, absorb, and intentionally distribute. Water harvesting is the only working solution to industry-created drought.


Swale building

As an island formerly known for its agricultural wealth, Moloka’i was once considered “the richest of the Hawaiian Islands”. Now residents wait for weekly barges to bring food. Enough already. It’s time for action. A local effort to revive a once highly productive fish pond system is already underway. In our continuing effort to help secure a sustainable food supply for Moloka’i we’ve reached out to endless sources. Federal, state, and non-profit agencies, all flying the sustainable flag, continue to ignore the only sustainable solution to food security. Permaculture. It’s silly to expect support from the very system that made the mess. A movement for “Permanent-Culture/Agriculture” is after all about us saving our own asses. Let’s do it.

On November 15th, PRI USA will continue its efforts to re-create an agriculturally sustainable Molokai. With returning course instructor Andrew Jones, and co-instructor Nichole Ross, we’ll work on establishing food security at two distinct sites; a two-acre homestead in arid Kawela and a modest food-forest designed to provide locals with a community food supply. Both sites were designed last spring when PRI USA taught it’s first Permaculture Design Certification Course at the Kawela site. This course is an opportunity for hands-on experience implementing a Permaculture design. Through various earthworks and composting, we’ll lay the foundation for productive and self-sufficient food forests. Mature food forests will help increase food security for Molokai’i and they’ll attract and recharge diminishing rainclouds. More trees, mo’ bettah.

Click here for information about the 7-day course (tuition deeply discounted for Moloka’i kama’aina) and here to make your tax-deductable donation to this grass-roots effort. The class is filling up quickly, which gives us hope.

Perhaps the people still got Kanawai.

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