Trouble in Paradise: The Urgent Threat of Climate Change to Waikiki, Hawaii

The state and local governments of Hawaii face difficult choices for mitigating climate change threats in the historic tourist destination of Waikiki.

Waikiki: The Urgency of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

Palm trees, white sandy beaches, an iconic pink hotel, and a legacy as a playground for Hawaiian royalty and local legends like surfing pioneer and swimming Olympian Duke Kamehameha – Waikiki beach and the surrounding neighborhood in the county/city of Honolulu is the crown jewel of the Hawaiian tourism industry. Tourism in Waikiki accounts for 9% of tax revenue and 8% of Hawaii’s gross domestic product,[i] or about 40% of the $20 billion statewide tourism economy,[ii] and attracts 71,000 visitors daily. [iii] In stark contrast to this sunny picture, climate change looms on the horizon and threatens to disrupt this paradise. The city/county of Honolulu, in partnership with the state and federal governments, needs to take steps now to mitigate the future threats posed to the community by the medium-term threat of watershed flooding and longer-term peril of rising sea levels.

Map of Waikiki Neighborhood and Ala Wai Canal


Source: Google Maps, accessed November 4, 2016.

Modern Waikiki is bounded by the two-mile-long Ala Wai Canal to the north and northeast and Diamond Head crater to the south. Prior to construction of the Ala Wai Canal from 1921-1929, Waikiki was an estuary for three streams. The canal drained the land and allowed for construction of hotels and other lucrative real estate. The original design for the canal called for it to empty into the ocean in two places, but the second exit on the southern end was never completed. Since completion, the canal’s water quality has degraded, mostly from surface runoff from parking lots and roads.[iv]

The limited capacity and toxicity of the canal means that the system is vulnerable to the severe weather occurrences that are likely to increase in Hawaii due to climate change. The cooler waters that have protected the island from frequent severe storms have been warming in recent years, which could increase the frequency and/or strength of cyclones.[v] In 2015, there were a record-setting 15 tropical storms in the Central Pacific region.[vi] Without intervention, it’s a matter of when – not if – the Ala Wai canal will overflow.

To the state’s credit, in August 2016 Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drafted a feasibility study project for flood mitigation within the Ala Wai Canals aimed a flood mitigation for a 100-year flood event (or “three times the flow rate of the canal’s maximum capacity”) which would develop water retention basins throughout the watershed and building a 4-foot wall on both sides of the canal. [vii] The project’s projected price tag is $173 million, plus nearly $1 million annually in operating costs.[viii] According to the Corp, a 100-year flood would affect 3,000 structures and 54,000 residents and inflict total property damages of over $300 million, a cost which does not account for lost tourism revenues.[ix] The project could potentially break ground by 2020, but the state will have to find funding for annual maintenance and the 35% of the project cost not covered by federal funding. [x] It’s imperative that the project is started as soon as possible.

However, the threat of global sea levels rising between 1 to 6 feet by 2100 is a more existential threat to Waikiki itself than watershed flooding; in the worst-case scenario of 6 feet, Waikiki all but disappears, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.[xi] In 2014, the Hawaii Legislature passed a bill to create the Interagency Climate Adaptation Committee (ICAC) and a detailed report on sea level rise vulnerability, which is due by the end of 2017.[xii]

Given that Hawaii alone cannot measurably affect the extent to which global emissions result in sea-level changes, the governing bodies of the city/county of Honolulu and state of Hawaii are faced with the challenge of preparing for a distant problem of uncertain magnitude. Commissioning reports is a step in the right direction, but the governing bodies will need to make the tough political choice of devoting real resources to a fund for future mitigation and adaptation projects and cannot expect the U.S. Federal Government to cover all costs. Additional funds could be collected from private sector entities in the tourist sector via a tourism tax specific to mitigation, or other taxation vehicles to relevant to tourism stakeholders who share the common interest of securing the future of the islands’ costal future.

It might be all sunshine and rainbows in Hawaii’s tourism industry today, but state and local governments need to invest real resources to ensure the island’s future, for tourists and residents alike.

(World count: 768)














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Student comments on Trouble in Paradise: The Urgent Threat of Climate Change to Waikiki, Hawaii

  1. I think that Waikiki could use its particularly threatened position as a lever to convince the millions of tourists that come visit that they need to impact climate change in their home communities (whether the US Mainland, Japan, or elsewhere). They need to turn tourists into advocates and show them that this beautiful place that they admire may be gone and it isn’t because of Hawaii, but rather because of larger population centers elsewhere in the world.

    On the other hand, Waikiki is itself a huge contributor to global warming – that is to say, the flights that people take to get there are hugely detrimental to the environment. A flight to Hawaii emits about 3 tons of carbon into the atmosphere per traveler, and the average total emissions per person in the US (in 2013) was about 19 tons – meaning that not flying to Waikiki at all could be much more helpful to Waikiki than flying there! More information can be found here:

    I think there needs to be a more holistic solution to this issue for Waikiki.

  2. Tourists have an impact that goes beyond the emissions from the flights they take to get there. Hawaii is dependent on imported oil for the majority of their electricity supply right now, although they are trying to move to 100% renewable energy by 2045 [1]. Hawaii also has a finite freshwater supply [2]. You mentioned 71,000 tourists visit Waikiki alone every day. That’s 7% of Honolulu’s population [3]. With such a large tourist presence, it goes without saying that tourists absolutely place a burden on Hawaii’s energy and water infrastructure. However, as you mentioned in your blog post, Hawaii and its residents depend heavily on tourism to support the local economy. Getting rid of the tourists is not an option. I agree that Hawaii’s government will need to take decisive but thoughtful action on how best to encourage tourism while mitigating the environmental impact locally as well as worldwide.

    [1] Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc.. 2015. Form 10-K for FY 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 6 November 2016].

    [2] U.S. Geological Survey. 2014. Coastal Groundwater Systems. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 6 November 2016].

    [3] The United States Census Bureau. 2015. Quick Facts: Honolulu County, Hawaii. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 6 November 2016].

  3. The rising of sea level is not the only cause and risk of erosion on the beaches of Hawaii, human-made structures such as seawalls, jetties and the dredging of stream mouth have had an important impact on the natural flow of the sand.

    For example, seawalls that were built to protect individual properties from water invading more and more their property but they exacerbate erosion nearby by preventing waves from reaching the sand needed to replenish the beach.

    Apart from the proposed efforts stated bellow of collecting funds via different taxation vehicles, a more detailed plan of what rules to state in the state should be put in place. For example, a detailed mechanism of management of the structures along the beach line should be considered, as well as ban protocols of where more structures can or cannot put in place.

  4. The existence of Waikiki itself is at threat because of climate change. Given it’s contribution to Hawaii’s GDP, the population of 160,000 (in addition to the 71,000 daily visitors), and the immense ecosystem that exists in the oceans adjacent to the beach, the results of Waikiki being displaced underwater would be devastating. Despite Hawaii’s dependence on imports and air travelers, Hawaii has been dedicated to environmental stewardship. They offer several ferries for inter-island travel, the majority of their hotels have “green” practices, and they have adopted the “Be Reef Safe” program. The country will need its tourists to act responsibly and sustainably to continue reducing Hawaii’s negative environmental impact. There are several ways tourists can contribute, a few of which include:
    1. If you need to drive, be conscious of selecting cars with lower gas mileage
    2. Don’t disturb marine life
    3. When going hiking, stay on the trail
    4. Don’t litter
    5. Practice catch and release fishing

    More can be found here:

  5. As Ross points out, getting to and from Hawaii is a major negative impact on the environment. Would Hawaii consider putting a tax in place as a result of this, funds from which it could use to offset carbon emissions (somewhat similar to what we learned in the EcoSecurities case). If the tax was on goods purchased on the island, tourists may not feel the impact until arrival. Hawaii also would have the opportunity to positively spin the story as the tax is keeping Waikiki safe.

  6. Wow, despite all of the studies and conversation in the media about major storms and rising sea levels, I can’t believe I’d never really thought about the impact that would have on the state of Hawaii, let alone Waikiki. As far as rising sea levels, this may sound ridiculous, especially given one of the current presidential candidates’ positions, but has there been any discussion about building a massive seawall of some sort that would encompass the majority of the island of Honolulu and offer additional protection from the encroaching sea? I wonder if something aimed at protecting a large portion of the island would be effective – and would be able to avoid the side effects smaller seawalls have had, as another commenter already noted here.

    Also, to what extent has the state and/or private entities pushed solar in Hawaii? Realizing that the state as a whole has a rainy season (and that parts of individual islands can have very different weather patterns), it still likely enjoys a higher proportion of direct sunlight each year than most other states, and I remember seeing a surprisingly high number of solar panels on rooftops when my wife and I visited on our honeymoon. Given that the price of importing energy to the state must be outrageous, I’d think this would be a huge point of emphasis and hopefully a way for the state’s islands to reduce their own carbon footprints.

  7. Wow, I had no idea Waikiki was affected by tropical storms so frequently. I usually associate hurricane-related flooding with the atlantic or gulf coast. The state government has a real problem due to the uncertainty of the impact of climate change on water levels. On one hand, they cannot risk doing nothing and some degree of investment in a flood mitigation strategy is necessary. The question is how much given the wide range of potential sea level outcomes (1-6ft increase). At the lower end of the range (e.g. 1 ft), an investment in flood mitigation makes economic sense. However, at the high end of the range Waikiki would basically be entirely underwater which would negate the value of any flood mitigation investment

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