Na ‘ilina wai ‘ole o Kohala — The waterless plains of Kohala, where water will not remain long (a Hawaiian Proverb).
Water resources were very important to pre-contact Hawaiians. A continuing tribute to this can be found thru the Hawaiian language. Wai, the word for fresh water is clearly the root of many words relating to wealth and power. For example, waiwai translates as wealth or goods, ho‘owaiwai means to bring prosperity and waiwai pa‘a is real estate.
The Hawaiians, more than any other Polynesians, were a people whose livelihood and interests were centered in cultivation of the soil. In their practice of agriculture, the ancient planters had transformed the face of their land by converting flatlands and gentle slopes to terraced areas where water was brought for irrigation by means of ditches (‘auwai) from mountain streams (kahawai). The making and maintenance of terraces and ditches and the regulation of water, entailed much cooperative and communal labor. Cooperation ensured under the kānāwai – the law.
Hawaiian development of the water resources of Kohala was very thorough and encompassed large areas. Kohala, in ancient times, was an extensive wet taro area and was also intensively cultivated in dryland taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, cane and other crops. In 1779, Lieutenant J. King of Captain Cook’s ship, Resolution, explored the district. He wrote that,
“…as they passed along, they did not observe a single foot of ground that was capable of improvement, left unplanted and indeed it appeared from their account, hardly possible for the country to be cultivated to greater advantage for the purposes of the inhabitants or made to yield them a larger supply of necessities for their subsistence.”
After first contact with the outside world in 1778, newly introduced diseases decimated the native population. The need to grow traditional Hawaiian staples diminished, eventually to be replaced by commercial crops of the introduced economy — rice, potato, pineapple and others, but most importantly, sugar cane. This giant grass, once cultivated as a dietary supplement by Hawaiians, rapidly overcame taro as the most extensive crop ever to be grown in Hawai‘i. Though no longer commercially cultivated in Kohala, sugar cane and its need for land, water and manpower, forever changed Hawai‘i.