FLASHBACK: Hawaii Official Who Allegedly Withheld Water From Firefighters Says ‘Equity’ Comes First

August 17, 2023

A Hawaii official accused of withholding water from firefighters battling Maui's deadly wildfires said last year that the state should make access to water conditional on "conversations about equity."

M. Kaleo Manuel, who was deputy director of the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management, has been under scrutiny since local media reported that he delayed releasing water to firefighters who were battling last week's wildfires, which killed at least 111 people.

The West Maui Land Company alleged in an Aug. 10 letter to Manuel that his commission declined its request to divert streams to fill reservoirs until the wildfires worsened and caused significant "devastation." According to Honolulu Civil Beat, sources said Manuel was responsible for the delay. They said Manuel asked the company to consult with a local farmer about the impacts of diverting water before he would approve the request.

Manuel only released the water five hours after the request was made, wrote the West Maui Land Company, which operates three water providers on the island.

"We watched the devastation around us without the ability to help," the company said in the letter. "We anxiously awaited the morning knowing that we could have made more water available to MFD if our request had been immediately approved."

Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources said Wednesday that Manuel was transferred to another position within the department. The department urged the public to reserve judgment on Manuel "until all the facts are known."

Critics of Manuel's handling of the wildfires have drawn attention to a November 2022 livestream hosted by the University of Hawaii in which he described water as a sacred tool for social justice.

"My motto is always like, 'Let water connect us and not divide us,'" Manuel said in a resurfaced clip. "We can share it, but it requires true conversations about equity."

"We've become used to looking at water as something which we use and not necessarily something that we revere," Manuel added.

Manuel was a 2019 "leader" at the Obama Foundation. His bio on the foundation's website says he believes "ancient wisdom and traditional ecological knowledge of native peoples will help save the Earth."

Other Hawaii officials and agencies have also faced scrutiny over the wildfires. Herman Andaya, the chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, had no background in disaster response, CBS News reported. Hawaii's electricity provider, Hawaiian Electric, has been sued over allegations that its power lines started the inferno. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company years ago committed to invest in reducing the fire risk posed by its power lines, but made little progress. Instead, the Journal reported, Hawaiian Electric was focused on its goal of "procuring renewable energy."

Published under: Hawaii