Will our well run dry?

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The clear blue globe pictured atop North America represents the quantity of fresh water in the entire world.


by Jeff Dunster


It’s tough for people in Hawaii to imagine a water shortage, given that we reside in the tropics and are surrounded by water. However, if you were able to take the Earth’s entire water supply and fit it into a bucket, only one teaspoon would be drinkable.

That’s a sobering thought, and one that would not be lost on the nearly 770 million people on the planet who do not have access to safe drinking water.

On the surface, it seems like a third-world problem–but is it?

Water scarcity now affects every continent on the planet. A June 7 story in the Wall Street Journal read “Drinking Water Runs Low as Dry Conditions Drag On”. The dateline was Wichita, Kansas.

Other regions in this country are also impacted.  For example, the Colorado River is beginning to run dry. Lake Mead in Arizona—which currently supplies water to 22 million people, is also predicted to run dry in 8 years.

University of Hawaii Professor Tom Giambelluca recently testified at the Board of Land and Natural Resources stating, “Projecting future climate in Hawai‘i is difficult, and results so far remain uncertain in some respects.” One thing we do know is that rainfall over the Hawaiian Islands has been in decline since 1978. “As global warming persists, this trend is likely to continue through the end of this century”, says a joint University of Hawaii and University of Colorado study published in the March 13, 2013 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research.

In a landmark scientific paper that appeared in Science magazine, leading water and climate scientists declared the death of “stationarity,” which has been the foundation of land and water planning on the Mainland (and Hawaii) for over a century. The loss of stationarity means one cannot assume that rainfall and the natural recharging of our aquifers will continue in the same way that they have for the past hundred years or more. In short, the precipitation that farmers have depended on in past centuries may not be there in the future.

“Short term fluctuations in rainfall don’t impact the water supply, or aquifer” said UH Oceanography Professor Emeritus Roger Lukas, who has studied climate change since the 1970s, “However, when longer term cycles such as an El Nino event and during the warm phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), are in play is another story.” El Nino doesn’t directly affect the recharge, but affects the drawdown. PDO affects both draw down and recharge.

Should we be concerned about declining rainfall levels in the midst of growing demand?

Rainfall is Oahu’s primary water resource for streams and groundwater supply. This illustration depicts the hydrology of an island aquifer.

Like all things in this world, the value of water is determined by the laws of supply and demand. By the year 2035, the Department of Planning and Permitting predicts Oahu will need an additional 102,000 Housing Units. John White, Executive Director of Pacific Resource Partnership said in a May 23 issue of PBN that there are “about 340,000 homes on the ground today and that Oahu needs to add 33 percent more units to meet future demands.“

How much the population will grow is unknown at this point, but it’s certain the newcomers will need places to live, work, and recreate. The new infrastructure—the buildings, offices, parks, homes and schools will require an essential component that’s not mentioned in any of the slide shows or brochures for the new housing developments…water.

Will our island be able to sustain this new influx of population?

Barry Usagawa, the Program Administrator at the Water Resources Division at the Honolulu Water Supply, is confident there’s plenty of water to go around. He points to Koolaupoko Watershed Management Plan which the City of Honolulu’s projected increase of 270,000 people to the year 2030. “Although the increase in water demand did not materialize yet, there is available unused water supply on Oahu,” said Usagawa.

Despite ample resources today, in addition to increased demand, climate change can throw future reserves out the window as well. When weather patterns change, spurred by long term trends such as increased CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming, it’s anyone’s guess how that will impact rainfall.

For example, the Big Island has been suffering from drought for over 10 years brought on by Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a long-lived El Niño-like temperature pattern that has impacted parts of North America and Hawaii. As fluctuating weather patterns cause winter storms to migrate northward, away from Hawaii, the result will be less precipitation and more drought.

Barry Usagawa, of the BWS agrees that “We are unable to determine the trend, severity and occurrence of future climate change impacts”. He said he is “currently engaging the University of Hawaii in researching climate change so that our long-range water resource and capital plans can be adjusted”.

The Big Island is in the midst of a 10 year long drought brought on by Pacific Decadal Oscillation

“There are many strategies”, said Usagawa, “that we can pursue to protect our water supply and improve our outlook.” These include the protection of watershed, controlling invasive species, encouraging use of recycled brackish and non-potable water, desalination and a host of other measures.

UH Professor Lukas agrees that steps can be taken to conserve water resources but remains skeptical about long term prospects. “Ultimately we need to ask ourselves,” said Professor Lukas, “what is a sustainable population?” 

It is my personal belief, said the professor, “that at some point in the future, the supply of water on Oahu will not be sufficient at a reasonable price”.

I agree wholeheartedly with the good Professor.

There is enough water right now but I believe if we don’t take the proper measures, it will become so expensive people may think twice about turning on the tap.

Bottom two photos courtesy of the University of Hawaii

Jeff Dunster is the CEO and co-founder of Hawaiian legacy Hardwoods, a Honolulu-based company.





  1. people have been saying stuff like this for at least thelast 60 years or so." running out of water!" " running out of food!" "over-population,too many people on this planet!" "we will have famine!" I think there is plenty of food and water to go around on this planet for all times.the problem is the distribution of the foodstuff and drinking water.there are corrupt governments,dictatorships and criminal regimes that are preventing their populations to receive and grow food.the elite ruling classes in these countries are siphoning most of food and aid for themselves and their cronies.and many of these despots are receiving generous money ,aid and even military support from the US government and our tax-dollars.the only solution to these "shortages" is a vibrant free market.we have to stop supporting these regimes.governments cannot create a free market.militaries and security forces cannot create a free maket. only indivduals with freedom and liberty and entrepreneurism canbring prosperity.there is plenty of food and water.

    • All he is doing is reporting on what UH scientists are finding. This is evidence based research. The scientists have real concerns. It has nothing to do with politics.




  3. I just watched Blue Gold : World Water Wars! It is on Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as youtube! such a moving and informative documentary. I cried several times and don't recall when I was so moved since I learned about GMO/monsanto in a documentary. I love how the documentary showed grass roots efforts in the US and other countries that are making a difference and the producers do a good job at the end to provide solutions and things you can do as an individual to be empowered and make the changes you want to see! Like the everyday folks fighting for water rights in Michigan and Wisconsin said…YOU Have to get involved for your children and grandchildrens rights to water in the future..this is not a 3rd world countries problem but ours in America also!!! now is the time to get informed to start the reform you want to see in the world! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKcf-RBHirw

  4. @ Rob, I believe it is all geo=political. and to briefly touch on global warming/climate changes: it is the biggest hoax perpetrated on mankind since eugenics was introduced to save (some) mankind. water is virtually indestructible,it recycles thru the earth's atmosphere. according to Wikipedia, there is approximately 46 Billion gallons of water for each human on this planet.that's right.46 BILLION GALLONS of water for each of us.that means that between you and me,we have 92 Billion gallons of water to share.distribution is one of the problems.so is building infrastructure to move drinking water from point a to z.just keep the EPA and the UN out of trying to solve these problems will go a long way.and individuals need private property rights.that's a tough one in most countries.

  5. Appreciate your comments but first off, I wouldn't take anything from Wikipedia as gospel.

    Not to sound like a broken record but the info I'm getting is from some very respected scientists who don't have a political axe to grind. One of them is actually quite conservative. All their research is evidence based. According to them the climate is changing in Hawaii and that could mean less rainfall, which means less water in the islands. Shaftalley, I don't know if you're "local", but I think the conservative approach is to be careful when it comes to development and population growth on Oahu, lest water becomes scarce.

  6. @Rob, thank you for your reply.and you are right about Wikipedia.although they do link to sourcesand encourage viewers to correct and /or add.and that includes a lot of stuff on the internet that I have to really be careful of.and I doagree that water will cost a little more.maybe a lot more.some of it from supply and demand.maybe these scientists don't have an axe to grind but most have a financial need.they need funding.and will they resort to fear-mongering and consensus to justify gov't. or private funding?and is consensus and computer studies,computer models and forcasting scientific evidence?is it hard facts? Looking at that graphic map of the Big Island that Mr. Dunster provides as illustration of a "drought"most of the area high-lighted by the deep red for example shows that that red colored area had a mean average rainfall of up to 3 inches of rain just in November of 2011!!that is a lot of water to me.

  7. The picture, as you moentioned, represents the quantity of fresh water. But we all know that with the help of technology the water from seas and oceans can become drinkable.

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