Securing Reliable Access to Water Starts with the Issue of Hawaii’s Red Hill

Alyssa Yanagi
4 min readMay 25, 2021


Water security is an international crisis and it is time we start addressing the threats posed locally.

Several hundred feet above the concrete encased steel-lining, my father peered over the metal handrail staring into the abyss of the empty fuel tank, both in awe and fear. In the early 1980s, initially taken aback by the astonishing engineering feat of Oahu’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, my father stood unsure of what exactly to fear. Now aware of the water supply aquifer only 100 feet below the potential 250 million gallons of fuel, my father stands with the public’s concern for our water security.

Being residents of Hawaii, our community is familiar with the water that threatens and crashes into our coastal communities, receding into the ocean with pieces of our property and roads. The water that has consistently been rising for the past decades seems endless, yet fresh water has been drained from its rivers, lakes and aquifers; water security continues to be an incredibly pressing international issue. Considering the exponential growth in our population, the anticipated demand, commercialization, and climate change, we have depleted much of our supply, posing obvious and immediate threats globally. This issue has the greatest impact in places such as the Himilayan glaciers. The Himilayan glaciers supply accessible fresh water to approximately 1.5 billion people for drinking and irrigation purposes and we are melting the source too quickly. Although the glaciers are a continent away, everyone must adjust their consumption for adequate redistribution.

Water is a driving force for war and famine; it is an economic commodity that we have not been treating with appropriate value. Many of us continue to flush gallons of the cleanest water in the world and treat it as if it is overly renewable. California has been making an effort towards water conservation by recycling their water for uses including direct potable reuse, irrigation, and agriculture. If we encourage sustainable use or possible reuse for the sake of reliability in our water security, we can allow the least economically powerful people to cope. If public-private partnerships engage in well-managed investments, water can be more accessible to greater populations by establishing appropriate restrictions and holding proper accountability. If we treat water with the value it deserves, we can create a system where it is not as accessible to those who exploit it, and in turn provides enough for those who struggle in famine.

The Issue of Red Hill

Hawaii’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, constructed in 1940 to support U.S. military operations, was built underground to address the vulnerability concerns of the above-ground fuel storage tanks located at Pearl Harbor. The facility is said to “monitor the fuel level in each tank to one sixteenth of an inch and controls the movement of fuel throughout the facility. If a tank decreases by as little as half an inch, alarms will sound in Red Hill’s control room, which is continuously staffed.”

The increments in which they monitor potential drops of fuel are significant in the effect that any leaks, including the 27,000 gallon leakage in 2014, and the approximate 1,000 gallon leak earlier this month, have the potential to permanently pollute our groundwater aquifers. A small amount of fuel contamination can cause a permanently damaged aquifer; the Moanalua-Waimalu aquifer which provides water to Oahu residents from Moanalua to Hawaii Kai cannot afford to wait for a temporary and short-sighted solution. If I want the generations that succeed me to have reliable access to fresh water, we need to relocate the tanks. The underground containment system is invisible, especially when the threat lingers directly above our water table. Relocation to an above ground, onsight storage facility, further from our cleanest aquifers, is a solution that needs to be supported and taken into serious consideration. The people drinking from our aquifer should be the judge in evaluating what standards suffice, or what proposals are most adequate. We cannot continue to accept that these solutions are least expensive in the short-run and instead invest more in a sustainable and reliable solution.

This is an ongoing environmental disaster; the media does a decent job of publicizing the issue, but we need to encourage and elicit direct change and solutions. We need to interact with the news and become intimately aware of the issues at home. In an effort to consider how individuals and broader communities can get involved, I contacted the Sierra Club of Hawaii, but they have not responded. They have been setting an example of getting involved and organized in the face of our current situation. Individually, we can make public comments and continue to contact representatives, but it is through the power of engaging with our local, national, and international communities and existing organizations to establish power behind our voice. I would like to welcome new generations into a world where their parents fought for a cleaner world.



Alyssa Yanagi

Alyssa Yanagi is a senior at Punahou School in Hawaii.