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Hawaiian agriculture centered around taro, a crop that grew best with an abundant supply of fresh water. Water, therefore, became a symbol of abundance and prosperity. The Hawaiian word waiwai – a reduplication of the term for water – meant wealth, reflecting the literal seat of riches in Hawaiian society. The importance of water shaped ancient laws and justice. Property and legal rights centered as much on water use as on land use and possession (as in the Western tradition). Hawaiians respected the sanctity of water and severely punished violators. An individual who broke an irrigation dam to gain an unfair quantity of water could be killed for the offense, with his dead body crammed into the break as an example to others. Though punishments could be extreme, disputes over water were rare in ancient times. Water was understood to be an important resource to be protected and cared for.

The water needs of taro spurred Hawaiians to some of their greatest engineering and construction achievements. They developed sophisticated irrigation systems that supplied communities of farmers and kept taro terraces flooded with slowly circulating water.

The building of `auwai, irrigation ditches or watercourses, required the labor and planning of a whole community. The konohiki, or supervisor under the chief of the area, directed the project. Workers were recruited from the areas benefiting from the new `auwai and greater rights to the water could be gained by those ali`i who supplied more workers. Water rights followed the number of laborers rather than the area of land worked.

Irrigation ditch construction began at the lower elevation end of a stream and was dug upward. Rough walls of stone and earth formed dams in the streambed. Dams were opened and closed by removing or replacing the large stones. Terraces were designed so that water from the `auwai flowed from one pond field to the next, moving slowly enough not to sweep away soil or young plant shoots, but moving quickly enough that the water temperature remained cool.

In allocating water use, no single user was allowed to divert more than half the stream's flow. Farmers taking water from the `auwai also followed a time schedule dictated by the konohiki. Water allotments varied from hours to days and could be severely cut back during times of drought. Small taro fields situated on hillsides were often awarded a constant trickle of water because their narrow plots couldn't retain water as well as larger ponds.

In arid places, Hawaiians used great ingenuity to gather water. They often grew sweet potatoes on rock piles that maintained enough moisture to nourish the plant and produce tubers. They collected water for drinking from the condensation on cave ceilings, gathering the dripping water in large gourd containers or wooden troughs. Places of low rainfall still received large amounts of dew and this was collected. The location of a freshwater spring was prized information and often kept secret. Hawaiians also collected fresh water from springs that opened under the sea near shore, diving with gourds to fill them under the ocean's surface.

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