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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

An Ethical Study of the Impact of Water Insecurity on Identity in Indigenous Communities

A man holds a sign reading

A man holds a sign reading "Shut Down Red Hill" during protests against the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Oahu, Hawaii. Photo Credit: Caleb Jones/Associated Press

The Cucapá Tribe of Mexico and Native Hawaiians near the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, O’ahu

Valerie Joco, ‘23

Caleb Jones/Associated Press

Valerie Joco ’23 was a political science and philosophy major with an emphasis in pre-law, and a minor in environmental studies, and an 2022-23 Environmental Ethics Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

Decades of overuse and climate change have exacerbated droughts and water shortages around the world. Indigenous groups are disproportionately affected by water insecurity. A 2019 report by Dig Deep, a nonprofit organization that focuses on safe drinking water, and the U.S. Water Alliance found that race is the strongest indicator of water and sanitation access, and that poverty was the key obstacle to water access (Roller et al). Lack of access to clean water can have grave impacts on the mental health and identity of affected populations.

This article will focus on two case studies: the Cucapá Tribe of Baja California, Mexico and Native Hawaiians near Red Hill, O’ahu; discussing the effects of water insecurity on Indigenous groups’ identity. These two case studies exemplify how water insecurity affecting Indigenous groups is extremely unjust as their way of life and identity is uniquely connected to waterways and the greater environment.

The Cucapá Tribe of Baja California, Mexico

The Cucapá is one of five native tribes of Baja California, Mexico. The proud name of Cucapá roughly translates to “river people.” They earned this name by following and living sustainably off the Colorado River for many decades. However, development projects and agricultural activities in the U.S. have diverted 90% of the river’s water and severely impacted the water quality and abundance of fish and other wildlife. In the 19th century, the river flow in Mexico was over 1,200 cubic meters per second. Now, it is 0.5 cubic meters per second (Lakhani). Public health officials have also measured fecal bacteria and Mercury in the water (Linares). 

Due to a lack of access to clean water and medical services, there has been an increase in deaths and heat-related hospitalizations associated with high temperatures. In August of last year, Mexicali, the capital of Baja California registered 21 deaths due to the hot weather, the highest “heat death toll” in recent years. In addition, there had been 393 cases of heatstroke (Rivera).

The endangerment of the Colorado River affects the Cucapá tribe’s identity as their way of life depends on the health of the river. For many generations, the Cucapá tribe has depended on the fish for livelihood. Many of their traditions are centered around the river and fishing. Now, they can only fish once a year (Linares). Consequently, many are now faced with the difficult decision of staying in an inhabitable place or leaving their home which carries enormous cultural significance to them. 

"My tata [grandfather] fishes because without that we cannot eat. I too would like to be a fisherman, because I really like the river and being here," 10-year-old Marleny Sáenz, a member of the Cucapá, said. "I want the river to stay, to have our traditions," she said (Linares).

Moreover, the counting of people, birds, fish, water quantities, etc., has had ideological effects on the Cucapá. Outsiders, such as scientists, water engineers, and linguists, are often coming into the Cucapá tribe to count something, which is usually at risk of “disappearing” (Muehlmann). The Cucapá tribe feels reduced to a number; meanwhile, nothing is being done to protect them. 

Native Hawaiians of Red Hill, O’ahu, Hawaii 

With a population of just over 1 million, Oʻahu’s population is 43% Asian, 23% percent multiracial and 10% percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (Malji et al). The state of Hawai‘i has 12 military bases, consisting of over 200,000 acres, making up over 20% of O‘ahu’s already limited land area and 5% of the overall state’s (Juvik). 

The Hawaiian Kingdom was an Indigenous-run, independent sovereign state recognized by global players. The Native Hawaiian people modeled their entire society around their water systems. For hundreds of years, the Hawaiian Kingdom’s systems of governance mirrored the water cycle, creating circular and sustainable resource management structures through regenerative agriculture and aquaculture systems, and was able to support nearly a million people (Chen). 

“We had no garbage dumps. We had no pollution. We had a very sustainable way of life. We knew how to manage our resources, how to grow food, how to distribute food, and how to manage water,” Healani Sonoda-Pale, chair of the Native Initiative for Self-Determination and O’ahu water protector said (Chen). 

Despite the once-sustainable way of life of Native Hawaiians, recent events have demonstrated the significant impacts that environmental pollution can have on the health and well-being of communities. In November 2021, the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility leaked into a local water aquifer, poisoning the water system for nearly 100,000 residents and displacing thousands. Over five thousand people including children, pregnant women, service members, and pets reported a wide range of illnesses for months on end (Yee). Some continue to suffer from complications over a year later, while others are still experiencing symptoms of petroleum exposure despite Navy claims that the water is safe to consume (“Shut Down Red Hill”).

“The military’s negligence of our water was a tremendous assault on Hawaii’s public trust,” said Kamanamaikalani Beamer, professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Even though we have these mandates in place, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad actors. Red Hill is the prime example of that” (Chen). 


While these are extremely unique case studies of groups from particular locations with particular contexts, they can highlight ways in which water insecurity acutely affects indigenous groups’ identity. Firstly, many indigenous groups rely on subsistence practices such as hunting, fishing, and gathering to meet their basic needs. For many indigenous peoples, these practices are not just a means of survival, but also a way of maintaining cultural traditions and connections to the land. 

A profound impact of environmental degradation and climate change seen in multiple indigenous groups is solastalgia, a sense of desolation and loss of identity that an individual experiences as their familiar home environment changes, hampers their livelihood, and/or becomes uninhabitable. Solastalgia is seen in many whose occupations rely heavily on the environment such as farming and fishing as they also experience a loss of identity due to climate change (Ganesh). 

The Cucapá people have a deep connection to their ancestral lands and rely on the natural resources of the Colorado River delta for their livelihoods and cultural practices. As a community with a long line of fishermen, the Cucapá tribe’s economy and cultural traditions are heavily reliant on the Colorado River. The loss of their traditional way of life and the destruction of their environment is causing a deep sense of grief and loss among the Cucapá people. As a result, they are experiencing solastalgia because they feel a profound sense of dislocation and disconnection from the natural world that sustains them. Solastalgia is a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness between people, culture, and the environment, and the importance of preserving Indigenous cultures and their relationship with the natural world.

Indigenous groups often have a strong connection to their ancestral land and the natural world. Many indigenous cultures see the natural world as a living, interconnected system, and believe that humans have a responsibility to care for and protect the environment. For Native Hawaiians, the land is more than just a physical place; it is a spiritual and cultural entity. The islands and their natural resources are revered as sacred and an integral part of the Hawaiian way of life. Native Hawaiians are a prime example of indigenous groups with a deep connection to their ancestral lands. The Hawaiian culture is built around the concept of "Aloha ʻĀina," which translates to "love for the land." This concept reflects the belief that the land and the people are interconnected and that the well-being of the land is essential to the well-being of the people. 

Moreover, for many indigenous peoples, their spiritual practices and beliefs are directly tied to the natural world, with rituals and ceremonies centered around natural phenomena such as the seasons, the movements of animals, or the phases of the moon. The Cucapá people have a strong spiritual connection with their environment, which is reflected in their culture, traditions, and way of life. The Cucapá people view themselves as caretakers of the land and believe that they have a spiritual obligation to preserve and protect it for future generations.The Cucapá people also have a rich spiritual tradition that involves various rituals and ceremonies that are conducted to honor their ancestors, the spirits of the natural world, and the land itself. Therefore, when the environment suffers, they experience a deep, incomprehensible crisis of identity. 

Both Native Hawaiians and Native American tribes have also experienced a history of colonization and exploitation that has threatened their relationship with their ancestral lands. The dispossession and destruction of their lands, and the imposition of Western values and economic systems have greatly hurt the preservation of their culture and way of life.

Despite these challenges, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians continue to fight for the preservation of their ancestral lands and their cultural heritage. They have been at the forefront of environmental activism around the world, advocating for the protection of their natural resources and traditional practices. Their deep connection to their ancestral lands serves as a powerful example of the importance of preserving indigenous cultures and their relationship with the natural environment.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge 

Indigenous groups also have developed a wealth of traditional knowledge over generations, based on their observations and interactions with the natural world. This knowledge encompasses everything from traditional ecological knowledge, which involves a deep understanding of local ecosystems and their dynamics, to traditional farming practices, hunting and fishing techniques, and medicinal plant knowledge. This knowledge is often based on a holistic understanding of the natural world and is passed down through oral traditions and experiential learning. 

Both Native Hawaiians and the Cucapá have a rich tradition of traditional ecological knowledge that has been passed down through many generations. This knowledge has enabled them to use resources such as water sustainably in a way that honors and respects the environment for over hundreds of years. They have always been willing to share this knowledge with those willing to learn, and help shape our climate policy, but have been repeatedly ignored and marginalized by their current respective political systems. To be systematically disenfranchised, pushed off their sacred land, and watch their home and sacred lands be desecrated and become uninhabitable is absolutely heartbreaking and unjust. 


From an ethical perspective, all humans have dignity based on their human nature per se and their ability to freely choose what they do with their lives. On the basis of such dignity, they have a right to be treated as ends in themselves and not merely as means to other ends (Kant). 

In these cases, the goal of bad actors such as the military or water policy makers may not be to cause water loss and pollution for Indigenous groups; however, these actors do not care enough to invite Indigenous groups into the conversation, or pay higher costs that would be involved, and follow regulatory procedures, so they willfully engage in this behavior for economic growth through agriculture, urbanization, or militarization. 

These indigenous peoples have a right to be recognized as ends in themselves for the sake of their health and wellbeing. The Markkula Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision-Making can help to examine these issues. Moreover, rights imply duties—in particular, the duty to respect others' rights and dignity. Actors such as water engineers, policymakers, agricultural stakeholders, and the military have a duty to respect marginalized groups such as the Cucapá tribe and Native Hawaiians’ rights and dignity. 

These cases also showcase how following rules or calculating utility can deeply ignore the basic needs of individual groups. The Cucapá tribe felt ignored by enumeration, as they felt their issues were seemingly deemed “not important enough.” While countless professionals came in to record the decreasing number of fish, native speakers, and water quantities; no one came to mediate water issues with them. As a result, the Cucapá tribe continues to decrease in numbers. There is a clear lack of compassion and empathy from actors. From a care ethics perspective, we need to listen and respond to individual groups in their specific circumstances, rather than merely following rules or calculating utility. 


The worldviews of Indigenous peoples have been historically marginalized in discourses of nature preservation and conservation, despite having a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge that could enhance our climate solutions. Kyle Powys White, professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation said, “Our knowledge of climate change is not actually just data… it’s actually knowledge [of] how to live sustainably. It’s knowledge about how to structure your social, political, and economic institutions in a way that is less likely to fall prey to what we’ve seen happen with capitalism and industrialization” (Whyte). 

Therefore, there needs to be more allied research done in partnership with communities and tribal leaders. More scientists should come into these communities with deep humility, respect, and an open mind to understand what’s going on in each respective environment and the significance of traditional ecological knowledge. Groups such as the Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group and Rising Voices have been organizing events to create dialogue between Indigenous tribal leaders and scientists for climate solutions while ensuring knowledge sovereignty. 

The encyclical Laudato Si, written by Pope Francis, focuses on the interconnectedness of all living beings and the urgent need for environmental stewardship, echoing many ideals long voiced by Indigenous groups. He writes, “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (Bergoglio, Paragraph 91).

The concern for the environment must be linked to a deep commitment to social justice and the well-being of all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. Many Indigenous groups such as the Cucapa tribe in Baja California, Mexico, and Native Hawaiians on the island of O’ahu have been disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and water insecurity, leading to not only serious health problems, but also the loss of cultural heritage and identity.

By having sincere love for our fellow human beings and inviting knowledgeable Indigenous leaders into our climate conversations, we can gain valuable insight that shape effective climate solutions and preserve Indigenous identity in a meaningful way.


Works Cited

Bergoglio, Jorge M. “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si; of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home.” The Holy See. 24 May 2015. 

Bosler, Cayte, director. Watershed: The Race to Save the Colorado River. YouTube, Collectively, 17 Mar. 2016.

Chen, Amber. “In Hawaii, Water Is Life—And It’s in Danger.” Atmos. 16 May 2022.

Drinking Water Emergency.” Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2021.

Ganesh, Chandrakala and Jason A. Smith. “Climate Change, Public Health, and Policy: A California Case Study.” American Journal of Public Health 108, S114_S119. 2018,

Horton, Alex, and Karoun Demirjian. “Military Families Say They Were Ill Months before Jet-Fuel Leak Brought Scrutiny to Pearl Harbor's Tap Water.The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Jan. 2022.

Juvik, Sonia P., et al. Atlas of Hawai’i. University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1998. 

Kant, Immanuel, et al. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals: And, What Is Enlightenment? Prentice-Hall, 1997. 

Lakhani, Nina. “The lost river: Mexicans fight for mighty waterway taken by the US.” 22 October 2019. Guardian News and Media

Linares, Albinson. “‘Dying of thirst’: The Cucapa in Mexico fight against climate change and oblivion.” 15 June 2021. NBC News. 

Malji, Andrea et al. “The Navy's Fuel Leak in Hawaiʻi Outraged Local Activists.The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Jan. 2022.

Muehlmann, Shaylih. “Rhizomes and other uncountables: The malaise of enumeration in Mexico's Colorado River Delta.” American Anthropological Association. 08 May 2012. 

Rivera, Salvador. “21 People Have Died Due to Excessive Heat in Mexican Border City of Mexicali.BorderReport, 28 July 2021.

Roller et al. “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States” Dig Deep Right to Water Project, US Water Alliance. 2019. 

Shut Down Red Hill.” Sierra Club of Hawai’i. 

Whyte, Kyle. “Indigenous Environmental Justice Symposium: Kyle Whyte.YouTube, York University, 13 Aug. 2016.

Yee, Chelsee. “Still Getting Ill, Hawaii Families Go after the Navy.KHON2, KHON2, 9 May 2022. 

Jul 13, 2023