RHC Update

The Resilient Hawaiian Communities Initiative: Building Capacity in Two Native Hawaiian Communities 

By Sean Aronson, Post-J.D. Legal Fellow

In December 2017, I began my journey as a legal fellow with Ka Huli Ao, working on the Resilient Hawaiian Communities (RHC) Initiative. The objective of the RHC project is to build capacity within two Native Hawaiian communities through the creation of a resiliency plan. The plans will integrate the latest climate research with specific place-based solutions identified by communities to best prepare for the ecological impacts anticipated as a result of climate change.

After an extensive selection process with many qualified communities, Waiehu Kou III on Maui and Kailapa on Hawaiʻi Island were chosen for their well-articulated visions and their potential ‘net resiliency gain’ – the community’s ability to take significant, focused steps to address the coming environmental changes, and leverage the resources of the project for the greatest benefit. Both communities are Hawaiian Homeland communities and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) is an ally for the project.

Unlike many climate initiatives, RHC is a pure community-driven process; community members will write the resiliency plan. To do so, the communities must assess their priority areas. RHC is only a one-year project; thus, it is imperative that both communities narrow their objectives to a few areas to better tackle the various aspects of climate adaptation planning that must be addressed. Also, because climate adaptation planning is a relatively new endeavor, the approaches to adaptation strategies vary greatly depending on the scope of the project and the vulnerabilities facing the communities. While much of the climate change policy focus in Hawaiʻi has been on sea level rise, the two RHC communities are dealing with other, more pressing threats to their vitality given their geographic landscapes – ranging from chronic drought to flooding.

Waiehu Kou III is located in West Maui and experiences frequent flooding episodes as a result of heavy rainfall in the West Maui Mountain Watershed mauka of their community. These intense rainfall events have led to huge losses of topsoil and have carried sediment to the nearshore area. This erosion has resulted in damage to the coral reef as the sediment flows into the ocean and inhibits the growth of limu and other marine life. One solution to this problem is a sediment basin; however, data must first be collected to support county, state, or even federally supported interventions. Waiehu also seeks to increase youth engagement within the community. One strategy to accomplish this is to train the youth in video production to document Hawaiian moʻolelo from their kupuna to pass on to their youth.

Drought conditions in Kailapa pose the biggest threat to the future of this community located in Kawaihae, South Kohala, about one hour north of Kona. This community sits on 10,000 acres of DHHL land, but nearly all of it is impacted by a lack of vegetation due to wind, drought, and goat activity. Additionally, the community has no ground or surface water sources in their ahupuaʻa and must rely on buying potable water from the adjacent Kohala Ranch. One of Kailapa’s resiliency goals is greater food security, so identifying a water source is key to their planning. Kailapa is also interested in renewable energy; therefore, the community is exploring combining their water and energy problems into one hybrid solution – pumped-storage hydropower.

As the legal fellow, my responsibilities include engaging the communities in the climate adaptation planning process, facilitating relationships with climate experts and the communities, and providing legal research on areas of concern that will likely end up in the final plan. This position was particularly appealing because I can remain connected to the William S. Richardson School of Law (Class of ’17) while venturing out of the academic walls to work directly with Native Hawaiian communities. My focus at Richardson had been on environmental policy — particularly land use and regulatory law — and this fellowship was a perfect fit in that regard.

The RHC initiative was developed at the request of, and funded by, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) under the Service First Authority, with the purpose to assist two communities in Hawaiʻi to develop resilience plans in partnership with Native Hawaiian, State, and Federal organizations. It is funded under DOI’s Service First authority and is co-led by staff from the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative (PICCC), Department of the Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations (ONHR), National Park Service Pacific Islands Office (NPS), and Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the William S. Richardson School of Law. The initiative benefits from the guidance of the Resilient Hawaiian Communities Working Group (RHCWG), composed of 15 members with expertise in environmental science, climate variability, community engagement, land management, cultural resource stewardship, and Native Hawaiian culture and lifeways.