Why Three Syrians Fled to Lebanon

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on June 7, 2013.

Boys stand outside a camp settlement of 35 Syrian families in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photos by Saskia de Melker.

BEIRUT — The odds that you’ll see a Syrian refugee in Lebanon are high. Nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees reside in this country with a landmass the size of Connecticut and a population of just over 4 million.

Scattered throughout the country, people are settling wherever they can. They often are living among Lebanese families, many of them poor themselves, and are at the mercy of local municipalities to welcome them into their communities.

With rents very high, families cram as many people as possible into small spaces. They build tents out of found materials and donated plastic and turn dilapidated buildings into makeshift shelters.

Unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Turkey and Jordan, there are no official camps in Lebanon and no plans to build them. Lebanon is still haunted by memories of an explosive refugee crisis a generation ago when Palestinians fled north. They never left and those teeming camps have become permanent neighborhoods.

Lebanon also is deeply divided over its relationship to Syria. The government has an official policy of disassociation from the conflict, and some factions worry that building camps would send the wrong message to the Syrian regime.

Whether conditions in a large-scale camp like Zaatari in Jordan are actually better is debatable. However, without a centralized camp structure in Lebanon, there are long delays to register refugees with the United Nations and many are unsure where to go for assistance when they arrive.

Even those who were not poor in Syria now find that the money that would buy them food for a week back home barely lasts a day in more expensive Lebanon.


Eleven-year-old Ali arrived in Lebanon just two weeks after being shot in the face. Fearing reprisals on their families back in Syria, most refugees don’t want to reveal their last names and many cover their faces to protect their identities.

A sniper shot through the window of his father’s car in Daraa, Syria. The bullet went through his nose, his eye and out the right side of his head.

When the fighting in the southern Syrian city intensified, his family had no choice but to take him out of the hospital prematurely and flee. Now 20 family members are living in a windowless back room of an upholstery shop owned by a Syrian friend.

Ali is blind in one eye and still has fragments of shrapnel in his chest and face. “I can feel the shrapnel in my chest and my nose when I breathe. It hurts,” he said.

He needs to have surgery to remove the rest of the shrapnel, but the family is having a hard time finding the money to pay for it. Aid agencies, they’ve been told, need to use their limited medical resources for life-threatening cases. So the family is considering moving onto the street temporarily to save the rent money for his procedure.


Nasser came from Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria located outside Damascus, where he said he had a nice house and a good job as a businessman.

When the camp was bombed in December and gangs tried to kidnap him and his son, the two fled — leaving his wife and other children behind — to find work and a house for all of them in Lebanon.

They spent their first month in Lebanon sleeping under a bridge and have had difficulty finding work or receiving assistance.

Nasser feels because he is Palestinian, he is being discriminated against in his job hunt. Fed up and frustrated, he has joined a group of other Palestinians from Syria in camping out for the past several months on a highway in front of the Beirut office of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which is tasked with helping Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

“I came here needing help, and I realized that the Palestinians in Lebanon need help as much as I do,” he said.


Tawasseef, 29, was pregnant with her third child when she and her husband fled Homs, Syria, after their house was bombed eight months ago. Her son was born shortly after arriving in Lebanon and she spent the last months of her pregnancy sleeping on a bare floor of their hastily made tent.

They have since taken out debts to build a tent out of scrap wood, cardboard, and plastic in a settlement in the Bekaa Valley, where 35 Syrian families have taken up residence. There is no clean water or plumbing in the settlement and her children are frequently sick.

Like each family in the settlement, they must pay $200 a month to the Lebanese landowner to use their plot of land.

Tawasseef said she isn’t sure what her family would do if the rent is raised. They are relying on vouchers from the U.N. refugee agency and other aid organizations for food.

“We used to talk about how poorly the gypsies lived back in Syria,” she said. “Now we are living worse than they were.”

Tawasseef said she has found some comfort in sharing her experiences with other women in the settlement, and despite the hardships, at least her family is safely out of Syria.




Dispatch: Neighbor Against Neighbor in Northern Lebanon

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on June 5, 2013.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Walk the streets of the adjacent neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in the Lebanese city of Tripoli and you will find some similarities.

Many businesses are shuttered. Residents have built barriers from sandbags and debris to protect their homes from stray bullets. The streets are devoid of women, but some can be seen peeking from the balconies of their homes. And men, both young and old, gather on the sidewalks carrying guns.

There is a battle raging here that goes far beyond these streets.

“We live day by day. We don’t know if you are going to be alive the next so we buy a coffin before we buy a house,” said one Bab al-Tabbaneh resident. “This is how we are living here.”

In Bab al-Tabbaneh, most residents are Sunni Muslim and support the armed opposition in neighboring Syria. Some young men here have even crossed the border to join the uprising.

Up the hill in Jabal Mohsen, most are Alawite Muslim, a minority group in Lebanon and the same sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Dividing them is the aptly named Syria Street.

Sectarian fighting has flared between the two areas since 2008, but the frequency and intensity of clashes has increased over the past two years as the war in Syria has escalated.

May was the deadliest month in the city with 29 people killed and more than 200 wounded. The Lebanese army has moved into the area in an attempt to stop the violence, but there is no indication the violence will end.

“This is going to continue until the situation in Syria is settled,” said Aboul Suleman, a young fighter from Jabal Mohsen.

Watch senior correspondent Margaret Warner’s report on how the Syrian war is inflaming sectarian tensions in Lebanon on Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour. View all of her reports from Lebanon.

Trouble in the Water: Coral Reefs and Shellfish Battle Acidifying Oceans

Coral Reefs and Shellfish Battle Acidifying Oceans | PBS NewsHour | Dec. 5, 2012 | PBSThis story was broadcast in two parts and was published as a single multimedia story online on PBS NewsHour in December 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.

Slip beneath the water’s surface and you’ll find a world teeming with life. Schools of yellowtail fish dart through colorful coral reefs. Spiny lobsters emerge from the crevices of ocean rocks searching for a tasty meal. And sea anemones nestle in the nooks of oyster beds.

But there is trouble in the world’s ocean.

Scientists are learning more about how carbon dioxide is dramatically changing the makeup of the oceans and the communities that depend on them.

“Over the last 200 years, 550 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been absorbed by the oceans,” said Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s enough carbon dioxide to fill enough train cars to wrap around the world seven times each year.

Feely, one of the world’s leading researchers on ocean acidification, has been studying this uptake of carbon dioxide for the last 30-some years. Feely and other scientists once saw an upside to the ocean acting as a carbon dioxide sink: it kept the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. But over the last two decades, they’ve discovered that it’s having an unprecedented effect on the chemistry of the oceans.

Carbon dioxide decreases the pH of the water. The lower the pH, the higher the acidity. Oceans have acidified by 30 percent from pre-industrial levels, and scientists expect that number will climb to 100 percent by the end of this century.

“Ocean life had not seen a significant change in pH for 800,000 years or more, said Sarah Cooley, a chemical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.“So marine life has been accustomed to conditions being consistent, and what we’re doing is we’re changing the game significantly.”

Slight changes in pH levels can have dramatic effects. Consider this: the pH of the blood running through your arteries is between 7.35 and 7.45. A drop of .2 pH units can cause seizures, heart arrhythmia or even send a person into a coma.

“That change in direction toward more acidic conditions is very important to your biological systems,” Feeley said. “It’s the same thing for many marine organisms.”

Watch the video report on how acidifying waters are impacting the U.S. shellfish industry

Producer/Writer: Katie Campbell and Saskia de Melker, Camera: Katie Campbell and Saskia de Melker Editor: Saskia de Melker  Narrator: Hari Sreenivasan

We can already see ocean acidification at work in the oceans. In recent years, oyster larvae on the northwest coast have been dying off by the billions. The seawater is so corrosive that it eats away at the young oyster shells before they can form.

Renee Carlton of NOAA’s Coral Health and Monitoring Program, compared the effect that acidification has on marine mammals to osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones in humans. As acidity increases, animals like scallops, oysters, and clams have a harder time extracting the calcium carbonate they need to build their essential shells. Shells become thinner, growth slows down, and death rates rise.

For coral reefs, the challenges presented by increased carbon dioxide are even greater.

Watch the video report of how Florida’s coral reefs are impacted by ocean acidification.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker, Camera: Saskia de Melker, Underwater camera: Frazier Nivens, Editor: Saskia de Melker, Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

Reefs are extremely sensitive to both warming and acidification.  High water temperature causes corals to ‘bleach’ or expel the colorful algae that live in their tissue, exposing their skeletons. When pH dips, they have a harder time generating sturdy skeletons, and evidence shows that it’s harder for corals to reproduce when the ocean acidifies.

“If a coral dies, there is less likelihood that a baby coral is going to be able to replace it in the future,” said Chris Langdon, a coral biologist at the University of Miami. He has been conducting lab experiments to see how corals will cope with future conditions and found that the one-two punch of carbon dioxide and warmer waters aggravate their effects on the reefs. “That means that the corals can show signs of bleaching at a lower temperature than they would have before the increased carbon dioxide,” Langdon said.

This leaves the animals more vulnerable to disease, pollution, and predators. And that has cascading effects for the rest of the ecosystem, all the way up to human communities, said Paul McElhany of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center studies the effects of acidification on marine species.

Shellfish and corals are the foundation of marine ecosystems. Reefs provide habitat for thousands of other animals, and more than a quarter of all fish live in coral reefs at some point in their lives. And many shellfish are at the bottom of the marine food chain and are eaten by fish and other animals.

“We’ve seen that these increases in acidification can really reorganize these food webs, both directly and indirectly,” McElhany said, adding “What happens in the marine environment is likely to affect you.”

Reporting contributed by Heather Goldstone of WGBH and Katie Campbell of KCTS9.


Two Texas Towns Run Out of Water


This report was aired/published on PBS NewsHour in March 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.

 Mark Twain said that ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting’ – that adage is becoming increasingly true in Texas as demand continues to outweigh supply and scrambles for water intensify.

As drought and record temperatures across the Southwest put an unprecedented strain on water resources in Texas, we went to the state to see how residents of two dry towns were coping. In Robert Lee, we showed how residents were trying to cope with a dramatically reduced reservoir by building a $1.2 million pipeline to a neighboring town. In Spicewood, where the wells have run dry, we showed how people now depend on water brought in on trucks.


Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera: Dieter Kaupp and Saskia de Melker
Editor: Saskia de Melker
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan


Two Texas Towns Run Out of Water | PBS NewsHour | March 20, 2012 | PBS

Protecting New York From Future Superstorms as Sea Levels Rise

This report aired on PBS NewsHour in November 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.

NYC Sandy
See the full report at PBS NewsHour



Superstorm Sandy pummelled New York City, leaving millions without power for days, destroying thousands of homes and businesses along the coast and the New York harbor and causing billions of dollars in damage.

As thousands of residents continue to clean up from Hurricane Sandy, many are anticipating future disasters and considering how New York will cope with rising seas and potentially more devastating flooding.


Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera: Brian Dentz and Saskia de Melker
Editor: Saskia de Melker
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan]

From Rooftop to Alleyway, Chicago Fights Extreme Urban Heat With Greener Ideas

This full multimedia report was published on PBS NewsHour and the video portion of this report aired on PBS NewsHour’s broadcast on October 9, 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.photos-2012-10-01-luxora_coleman_stillSouth Chicago resident Luxora Coleman lost her husband in the 1995 heat wave / NewsHour photo by Michael Werner

CHICAGO | On a sweltering day in July 1995, Luxora Coleman returned to her Chicago home to find her husband, Oliver, unmoving on his living room couch. With a weak heart and only a ceiling fan to battle temperatures that had soared to 106 degrees, the heat wave had proved too much for him. He was pronounced dead later that day.

Coleman’s husband was one of thousands of residents left without air conditioning over the four days that summer when the heat index reached 120 degrees. Roads buckled, cars broke down and many areas lost power. And by the time it was over, more than 700 people, mostly the elderly and ill who live alone, had died due to heat-related causes.

Since that devastating heat wave, the city has been working to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again by improving heat emergency warnings, opening summer cooling centers and stepping up efforts to monitor seniors during extreme heat events.

But they’re also working to engineer a city that can stay cooler even as temperatures rise.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker Camera: Michael Werner and Saskia de Melker Editor: Saskia de Melker Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

Global climate data shows the Earth has been warming increasingly over time.

Chicago is part of that trend. The city’s annual average temperature has increased by 2.5 degrees since 1945, according to this climate assessment created by a consortium of scientists and commissioned by the city.

Like many urban areas, Chicago is also victim to something called the urban heat island effect. Simply, concrete and pavement, which absorb and trap heat, make cities like Chicago hotter than surrounding rural areas. Buildings soak up the sun’s rays during the day and release that heat into the night.

Joseph Fernando of University of Notre Dame has been studying the urban climate in both Chicago and Phoenix. He’s also been studying the influence of climate change on the urban heat island effect. Fernando’s research shows that Chicago is about four to five degrees warmer than the neighboring rural town of DeKalb, Ill., for example. That’s partly due to continued urban development as well as global temperature rise, he said.

The heat island effect, climate scientists are quick to point out, does not skew the global trends that indicate climate change is occurring. After all factors that impact temperature at different locations are accounted for, research has shown that urban sites are warming at about the same rate as rural sites, said Thomas Peterson, chief climatologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Climate change basically exacerbates the effect at night,” Fernando said. As the global temperature increases, a city’s developed areas will retain even more nighttime heat than other areas.

To battle the heat, city officials have undertaken an ambitious $7 billion plan to build a “new Chicago,” said Karen Weigert, the city’s chief sustainability officer.  That means renovating citywide infrastructure from sidewalk to rooftop.

Central to the city’s plan is adding green space and vegetation wherever they can, which has a natural cooling effect

Chicago’s City Hall, for example, contains a spectacular rooftop garden. From native woodland grasses to sunflowers and asters, plants arranged in radiating bands of color bloom throughout the seasons in a sunburst pattern. The roof, 12 stories high, contains 23,000 square feet of more than 100 plant species.

“It’s really the Rolls-Royce of green roofs.” said Michael Berkshire who administers green projects for the city. Some areas of the roof have rolling terrain with an added 18-inch layer of soil to support trees and shrubs. A rainwater collection system irrigates the roof and several bee hives pollinate the many flower varieties.

The plants on the rooftop soak up the sun’s heat to evaporate water, keeping both the buildings underneath and the air above it cooler. One half of City Hall’s roof used to be black like most roofs, and on a hot day when they measured the difference between the two sides, the surface temperature was nearly 80 degrees hotter on the black top side than the green side. Chicago estimates that this green roof saves City Hall about $3,600 a year in heating and cooling savings.

“If every rooftop in Chicago was covered with a green roof, the city could save $100 million in energy every year,” said Jason Westrope, a developer for Development Management Associates, who has overseen the building of green roofs in the city.

See images of some of Chicago’s most impressive green roofs.

Green roofs also help absorb stormwater runoff. That’s important because the city’s stormwater drains through its sewers, and if the system gets overloaded after a big storm, that wastewater is in danger of backflowing into the river, the lake, and even into people’s basements.

Chicago already has 359 green roofs covering almost 5.5 million square feet — that’s more than any other city in North America. But city planners are pushing for even more.

Chicago has mandated that all new buildings that require any public funds must be “LEED” Certified — designed with energy efficiency in mind — and that usually includes a green roof. Any project with a green roof in its plan gets a faster permitting process. That combined with energy savings is the kind of green that incentivizes developers.

“We’re looking at placing landscape wherever we can, and it’s so much more difficult when you have a densely developed city.” Berkshire said. “Rooftops are one of the last frontiers.”

But the city is looking beyond buildings — they’re hitting the streets too.

“Our streets represent 23 percent of the land area here in Chicago.” said Janet Attarian, project director for the city’s transportation department, “And it needs to be more than just a place where we move vehicles and goods. It needs to be our front doors.”

That’s why they’re designing new streetscapes that integrate technology and design elements from widened sidewalks for increased pedestrian traffic to tree and plant landscaping that provide shade. The pavements are made of a light reflecting material mix that includes recycled tire pieces and lanes coated with a microthin concrete layer that keep the street from absorbing so much heat.

Chicago’s 1,900 miles of alleyways traditionally absorb heat and cast away potentially cooling rainwater. But new ‘green alleys’ use permeable pavement that absorb rainwater. As that underground water evaporates that also keeps the alley and air around it cool.

“We need to make sure that people can get from A to B safely, that the streets aren’t flooding, and that they’re not buckling because of the heat,” Attarian said.

The DNC Through the Eyes of an Illegal Immigrant

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on September 6, 2012.


Gerardo Torres used to be afraid every day for his life.

“I was very careful when I was driving around not to make any mistakes or bring any attention from the police,” he said.

For the past 20 years, he has been living in Arizona after entering the country illegally from Mexico. And like the millions of undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the country, he faces the risk of arrest and deportation.

Instead of waiting for an uncertain fate, Torres joined a group of immigrants who have decided to publicly proclaim their undocumented status. They’ve called their project “No Papers, No Fear,” and they are calling for a change to immigration policies that they say have unfairly targeted and criminalized immigrant communities. For the past six weeks, the forty riders have traveled from Arizona to North Carolina in their so-called “Undocu-bus”. Along the way, they stopped to meet with community leaders and other undocumented families — discussing rights and explaining legal strategies to families facing deportation hearings.

Ultimately, the riders’ message has been focused on their final destination: the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. where thousands of delegates, media members, and police have converged for the nomination of President Obama for a second term.

With over 50 million Latinos in America, the group represents a strong base in the Democratic constituency. As in 2008, President Obama has made immigration reform a key part of his platform, and Hispanic voters make up a critical portion of the population in three swing states: Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
But members and supporters of the “No Papers, No Fear” project feel that the president hasn’t done enough to fulfill his promise to reform the immigration system.

“That was one of the promise that he made to us,” Torres said. “and we’re hoping this time he’ll listen to us and help us.”

In marches around downtown Charlotte this past week, the group has repeatedly cited the Obama administration’s record for detaining and deporting more immigrants than any other administration in U.S. history and for the implementation of the Secure Communities program, which allows federal immigration records to be shared with local law enforcement agencies to target criminal immigrants.

Several of the Undocu bus riders, including Torres, blocked the street in front of the convention site shouting the words, “undocumented and unafraid,” as an act of civil disobedience this past Wednesday. All ten were arrested for blocking traffic but were released by the next morning.

Torres says he will return to Arizona to fight against the state’s immigration laws, particularly the controversial SB-1070 law that permits police officers to ask anyone for their immigration papers if police suspect them of being undocumented.

“We have come out of the shadows,” said Torres, “and we are no longer willing to stay quiet.”

A Sour Season for Michigan’s Cherry Farmers

A Sour Season for Michigan's Cherry Farmers | PBS NewsHour | Aug. 16, 2012 | PBSThis report aired on the PBS NewsHour with a multimedia build out online as part of the Coping with Climate Change series. See the full report here.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. | Every summer, thousands flock to the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan for all things cherry: pit spitting, pie eating, even the royal crowning of the National Cherry Queen. The region produces roughly 75 percent of the country’s tart cherry crop each year for pies, juice, and preserves.

In 1995, Sara McGuire was reigning royalty of the cherry festival. That same year, she and her high school sweetheart, Pat, got engaged and started growing cherries. For the first few years, business was strong, but then a series of low-yield years set them back. Still nothing could have prepared Royal Farms for 2012.

2012 has been the worst year in recorded history for Michigan fruit. Statewide, more than 90 percent of the tart cherry crop was lost when freezing weather followed an unusually warm spring.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker, Camera: Michael Werner and Saskia de Melker Editor: Saskia de Melker

“It’s been a real challenge emotionally and physically,” said Pat McGuire. “We have no crop. We’ve had to lay people off. We’ve had to work extra hours. We did everything we could in the spring to minimize the effects of the freezes that we did have. We felt like we just lost a fight.”

Northwestern Michigan is considered by many an ideal place for growing fruit. Located on the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, the surrounding Great Lakes and rolling hills help create a temperate climate.

But as Pat walks through his orchards now, they are a haunting green. This year, nature harvested the trees.

Cherry trees remain dormant throughout winter until a spring warming wakes them up. That happened much earlier this year. Temperatures in March shattered records across the country, reaching the mid-80’s in Michigan that month – that’s nearly 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the state average. That pushed the trees to a development stage about 5.5 weeks ahead of normal, Nugent said.

And when temperatures dropped again, the trees’ early buds were vulnerable. From late March through May, there were 15 to 20 nights in which temperatures fell below freezing. Farmers tried using wind fans to keep warm air circulating around the fruit trees, but it was little help.

The cold snaps killed not only cherries, but also juice grapes, peaches, and apples. Losses across the state are estimated at $210 million.

Don Gregory is co-owner of Cherry Bay Orchards, the largest producer of tart cherries in the country. Usually, he grows an average of 10 to 15 million pounds of cherries a year. This season, that’s down to one hundred thousand pounds.

“It would be like somebody telling you, ‘Hey, you’re not going to get a paycheck for sixteen months. Now we expect you to come to work every day, we expect you to pay all of your bills, and we’ll get back to a normal paycheck in about sixteen months.’” said Gregory.

For most farmers, harvesting equipment was mothballed through the season. Many called up their seasonal workers to tell them there would be no work this season. Processors were forced to shut down operation lines, and producers imported cherries from as far away as Poland to meet demands.

This isn’t the first time Michigan experienced such a devastating season. A similar extremely early spring followed by frost events occurred in 2002.

“We thought that was really a statistical outlier, and 10 years later we have a very similar situation,” said Jim Nugent. “It’s really disconcerting when we have two once-in-a-lifetime events within an 11-year period.”

And while these years were particularly extreme, the trend gives state climatologist Jeff Andresen cause for concern.

We know from our climate records that our seasonal warm-up is beginning an average of a week and a half earlier than it did just 30 years ago.” Andresen said. “We also have very, very strong evidence that the number of freeze events following the beginning of development for these tree fruit crops has increased. So there’s a longer time frame where that crop is vulnerable to those spring freezes than used to be the case 30, 40, 50 years ago.”

That translates to more risk overall for the cherry grower and for the industry, he adds. Michigan scientists are now working with the fruit industry and international researchers to investigate how climate change will further affect the global cherry industry.

“If climate is changing, how are we going to address this and how are we going to give growers those tools that they need?” said Nikki Rothwell, horticulturist at the Michigan State University Horticultural Research Center, “For example is there a cherry out there through breeding that blooms later and is less susceptible to these frost situations?”

Despite these risks, protection for the industry is almost nonexistent. As a specialty crop, there is no insurance for tart cherries. Low-interest state loans are being offered to farmers as compensation for the disastrous crop loss this season, but that offers growers minimal relief.

To make matters worse, the damage may extend beyond this year. The frosts left fruit trees vulnerable to diseases like bacterial canker which invades the tissue and can permanently damage trees. Plus, the farmers are left with all of the costs of maintaining their orchards, but none of their revenue.

The McGuires are trying to stay positive and focusing on selling cherry products from past seasons to get through this one. “We try to constantly think creatively about how we can do things differently to reduce costs. That’s been our strategy since we got started, but this year it’s become more important,” Sara said.

Pat admits that they haven’t ruled out putting the ‘Out of Business’ sign on the door. They knew when they started that farming was a risky business, but the odds of crop loss feel stacked against them now, he said.

What if we don’t have fruit next year?“ Pat said. “How do you plan for that?”

It is a sour thought in the minds of many farmers.

Swinomish Tribe Adapts to Shrinking Salmon Supply

Northwest 'Salmon People' Face Future Without Fish | PBS NewsHour | July 18, 2012 | PBS

This report aired on the PBS NewsHour broadcast  on July 18, 2012 with a multimedia build-out online as part of the Coping with Climate Change series. See the full report here.

LACONNER, WA | Billy Frank, Jr. was 14 the first time he was arrested for fishing.

It was 1945, and he was on the Nisqually River in Washington state. Frank and other members of Washington’s Nisqually tribe were holding “fish-ins” as part of a civil disobedience campaign, protesting the violation of fishing rights guaranteed to them by treaties between the federal government and Washington tribes. Commercial fishermen were catching salmon by the millions of tons while the state attempted to limit Native American fishing.

In the decades that followed, Frank would be jailed more than 50 times.

The battle eventually lead to Judge George Boldt’s historic 1974 ruling, which reaffirmed the rights of tribal members to fish, hunt and harvest shellfish on their native land and allocated half of the state’s annual catch to tribes.

 Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker and Katie Campbell, Camera: Michael Werner and Katie Campbell Editor: Saskia de Melker, Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

That landmark decision ensured that Native Americans in Washington state would be allowed to harvest salmon for generations to come. But overfishing, loss of habitat and hydro-electric dams have depleted salmon populations throughout the Northwest. Five populations of Pacific salmon have been listed as endangered and 23 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Today, Pacific salmon are facing yet another threat, which Frank fears could drive them to the brink of extinction. Salmon need the glacier-fed streams of the Northwest to survive, but since 1920, the average annual temperature in the region has risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That slight increase in temperature has caused the glaciers of the South Cascades to shrink to half what they were a century ago, according to the United States Geological Survey.

South Cascade Glacier images courtesy of USGS. Time lapse video by Travis Daub.

Alan Hamlet, a hydrologist with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, said that glacier loss is devastating the salmon habitat.

“Glaciers are a kind of water tower, a way of storing water under natural conditions, and when we lose that water tower, then the flows in the summer go down,” Hamlet said.

Glaciers also keep rivers consistently cool throughout the year. Without them, stream temperatures climb. Temperatures that rise above 70 degrees are lethal to adult salmon. And researchers at University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group project that by 2080, nearly half of the streams they monitor throughout the state will average weekly temperatures of at least 70 degrees.

Salmon habitat spans a wide range of freshwater, estuarine and marine environments, leaving them susceptible to changes in temperature, sea level and the water cycle throughout their lives.

Rising water temperatures don’t bode well for Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, who call themselves “Salmon People.”

“Our economy was built around salmon,” said Frank, who is now chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We’re trying to bring them back, to make that economy come to life within our tribes.”

Just as Washington tribes fought to defend their fishing rights in the years leading up to the Boldt decision, they are once again fighting to protect the natural resources so integral to their way of life.

The Swinomish reservation occupies 15 square miles of the Fidalgo Island in Puget Sound near the mouth of the Skagit River, a waterway fed by nearly 400 glaciers and one of the last remaining homes to all five species of Pacific salmon.

Fifteen percent of the reservation is at or just slightly above sea level, including environmentally-sensitive shoreline areas, where they’ve harvested shellfish for centuries. University of Washington climate scientists estimate that this area could see up to a meter of sea level rise over the next century.

Like many tribal communities, the Swinomish can’t just pick up and move out of harm’s way. Relocating is antithetical to who they are, said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

“We are a place-based society,” he said. “This is our homeland. The Swinomish have lived here for 10,000 years. We don’t go anywhere — ever.”

The Swinomish are not alone in this struggle. A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation has found that indigenous populations suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change because tribal lands are especially prone to drought, flooding, wildfires and coastal erosion.

After watching other tribes lose their homelands and traditional food sources, Cladoosby says, “We realized that something was happening in the environment. We didn’t want to get into the debate of what is causing it. We’re just trying to figure out how to prepare. We started asking the questions: What’s going on here? Are we next?”

Under Cladoosby’s leadership, the Swinomish have become the first tribe in the country to assemble a panel of scientists – the Skagit Climate Science Consortium – and conduct a comprehensive climate adaptation plan.

Among the group’s goals: strong science that focuses directly on the communities at risk and that can be used for future tribal planning. And they have more than just science to offer, they say. There’s also the ecological knowledge that comes from having lived in the region for thousands of years.

Read our related story Climate Change Threatens the ‘Twilight’ Tribe

“Traditional knowledge is on-the-ground stuff,” said Ray Harris, a fisherman with the Chemainus First Nation on Vancouver Island. “From observing and testing and catching and eating, we know how the state of the resource is. We put it on the table and feed our people.”

Larry Wasserman, the tribe’s environmental policy manager expects the consortium to become a model for local policymakers who want to prepare for climate change but don’t know how.

“Much of [climate] science is being done at a regional scale or a global scale,” Wasserman said. “So it doesn’t become usable to local communities. That’s where it needs to start.”

When Native American communities think about the future, they’re not just considering the next generation, they’re considering the next seven generations, Harris said. And they believe that very long-term perspective makes them uniquely qualified to cope with climate change.

“Seven generations ahead, that’s about the right time scale for sea level rise planning,” Hamlet said.

And for Billy Frank, Jr., it’s about ensuring that his great great grandchildren also have the right to fish in Washington’s rivers.

“We’re running out of time,” Frank said. “We’ve got to make a change.”

Frank will join hundreds of other Native Americans in Washington D.C. this week for a symposium at the Museum of the American Indian with policymakers, government officials, and scientists to discuss how tribes can prepare for climate change.

For more reporting on climate and environment in the Pacific Northwest, go to EarthFix, a project of KCTS9.

Twilight Tribe Threatened by Climate Change

Climate Change Threatens The Tribe From 'Twilight' | PBS NewsHour | July 16, 2012 | PBSThis report aired on the PBS NewsHour with a multimedia online build out as part of the Coping with Climate Change series. See the full report here.

LA PUSH, WA | With its craggy rocks rising from the sea, frequent whale sightings and white sand beaches, the Washington state community of La Push, located just west of Olympic National Park, is at first glance, idyllic.

But the beauty of the place is matched by the danger. Located at sea level, La Push lies directly in a flood and tsunami zone. It is home to the Quileute Indian Nation, a tiny tribe that gained popularity for their portrayal in the hit book and movie series “Twilight,” and their square-mile reservation leaves little land to buffer storms and high waters.

For centuries, the Quileute tribe has relied on the area’s ocean and rivers. Native fishermen and hunters once escaped dangerous weather along territory that stretched across the Olympic Peninsula. But that’s no longer an option. In 1855, the tribe signed a treaty ceding thousands of square miles of land in exchange for fishing and hunting rights. Now, restricted to their small coastal plot, they are facing increasing risks.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker and Katie Campbell, Camera: Michael Werner, Katie Campbell, Saskia de Melker Editor: Saskia de Melker, Narrator: Hari Sreenivasan

University of Washington researchers say that rising temperatures have resulted in reduced snowpack and diminishing glaciers, but also more winter rainfall. Heavy rains have already destroyed vital hunting grounds and homes on the reservation.

“I see water running down the street in the wintertime,” said Lonnie Foster, treasurer of the tribal council, adding that floods come on faster now than when he was a child. “Back then it would take two to three days before [the tides] would come up to the flood level. But now, when it rains hard, it comes up overnight.”

In the nearby Olympic Mountains, glaciers have lost about one third of their mass in the past 30 years, and the resulting ice melt has led to sea level rise. For tribal elders like Chris Morganroth, that means one thing: tsunami danger.

“Because of the water rising and the ocean, a wave that’s created by that tsunami is probably going to reach farther into the rivers,” Morganroth said. “If it happened a hundred years ago, it was probably not as devastating as it might be today.”

Photo Essay: Explore images from the NewsHour’s reporting trip to Washington state tribes.

The Quileute are already preparing for the worst.

To ensure the survival of their tribe, the Quileute have been entrenched in a 50-year effort to reclaim part of the land that they ceded – most of it on high ground that could keep them safe, while at the same time providing land for tribal members who now live off the reservation. Complicating the struggle was the fact that the land was designated federal government land, part of Olympic National Park

Quileute tribal chairman Tony Foster said there’s irony in fighting so long and hard for land that was theirs to begin with. “If I could rewrite history, we would have had more land base for our community, so we wouldn’t have the struggle that we face today,” he said.

Several Washington Congressmen have taken up the cause including representative Norm Dicks who sponsored the bill.

But there’s also been another, unexpected twist to the tale: Twilight’s Jacob, a shapeshifting werewolf, belongs to the Quileute tribe. In the story, his clan has an ancient treaty with a family of vampires.

While Quileute members have somewhat mixed reactions to their tribe’s role in the hit series, they’re often quick to acknowledge that stardom has helped galvanize their cause.

“It’s brought us a lot of national attention,” said Ann Penn Charles, a tribal member, “You got all these Facebook pages and then, of course you got the media coming out, doing coverage of us, and they got to see that little glimpse of our reservation. It helped us a lot to push Congress.”

That push finally paid off. In February of this year, Congress passed bill HR 1162 that transfers 785 acres of Olympic National Park back to the tribe.

“The National Park Service doesn’t transfer park lands casually, and it doesn’t happen often,” says Karen Gustin, former superintendent of Olympic National Park who worked to resolve the boundary dispute between the tribe and the park. “The reason this is going through is because it’s a serious life, health, and safety issue for the tribe.” She adds that the park service will also gain something from yielding the land: public access to several of the landmark beaches located on the tribe’s reservation and a large portion of land that the tribe will preserve as wilderness.

The process is still in the early stages. Planning meetings within the tribe and also with key federal agencies began last month and it will likely take years before they are able to fully relocate. Plus, there’s another challenge to overcome: the cost. Full relocation from planning to resettlement is estimated to cost about 25 million dollars. How to pay those costs is still uncertain. Both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Quileute council said possible avenues for funding could include theáIndian Health Service, áthe Bureau of Indian Affairs or Housing and Urban Development programs, such as Indian Community Development Block Grants.

Despite the challenges, many Quileute say they feel a great sense of victory, hope and relief that the relocation is moving forward.

“Moving to higher ground is essential for us.” Foster said, “because if this place gets wiped out, the Quileutes could be lost forever.”

Louisiana Fishermen Pioneer Floating Architecture

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on June 5, 2012.

Raccourci Old River is known as one of the best fishing spots in Point-Coupee Parish, Louisiana. This community of more than 400 homes draws flocks of fishermen who spend days on the water and docks reeling in crappie, bluegill, and bass.

But it faces a major challenge. Old River sits outside the Morganza Levee system, so when the mighty Mississippi floods, rising water overwhelms it. In the past decade, Old River has flooded at least once every year.

In response, residents and those with seasonal fishing camps have mobilized to devise an innovative solution: turning their homes into floating rafts. Also known as “amphibious,” the houses stay grounded under ordinary circumstances, but when water inundates the land, they float.

There are numerous variations on the idea, but the underlying principle is usually the same: a steel frame fastened to the underside of the building foundation contains a buoyant material — large blocks of styrofoam, for example. Vertical guidance poles attached to the frame keep the house from moving any direction but up or down.

For this community of fishermen, it was a logical solution, said Buddy Blalock, a longtime resident at Old River and one of the first to convert his house. “I’ve done a fair amount of boating and sailing, so I said ‘Look, I’ll just make a boat out of it,’ and that’s what I did.”

It wasn’t long before others followed suit. Jacques LaCour owns the community’s mainstay bar and restaurant. He converted the building to be amphibious 10 years ago.

“Living on a river that floods seasonally every year, it was just common sense,” he said. “It’s an obvious solution to a problem.”

But at least for now, amphibious housing is not as obvious in most of Louisiana.


In the United States, floods are the costliest and most common natural disaster, according to FEMA, and Louisiana’s location make it even more flood-prone. Climate scientists predict flooding will become even more frequent as rising sea levels and rapidly subsiding land cause water to creep further inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

The traditional option for protecting homes from flooding here has been elevation onto stilts. But that option isn’t ideal, said Elizabeth English, a professor of architecture and engineering at the University of Waterloo.

“If you elevate your house to 3 feet, that will satisfy the law, but it won’t keep you safe,” she said, “But, then you put your house 8 feet up on stilts, and now how are you going to get your grandmother who is in a wheelchair up and down all those stairs?”

English began a nonprofit called The Buoyant Foundation to focus on retrofitting existing regular foundation houses into amphibious structures in Louisiana.

However, English says those who have promoted amphibious housing in Louisiana as a flood protection measure have been met with obstacles. LaCour and others in the region have cited difficulty in getting National Flood Insurance Protection for their properties after adding flotation fixtures. To be eligible for flood insurance, FEMA requires that structures in flood-prone areas be “adequately anchored to prevent floatation, collapse, or lateral movement.”

In an email to the NewsHour, a FEMA official said that homes must meet NFIP guidelines in order to receive flood insurance, but did not respond specifically to LaCour and English’s claims. The official added that the agency “doesn’t have any current involvement on the issue of amphibious housing.”

Although floating houses are still uncommon in the U.S., it’s not uncommon to see them in other parts of the world, such as the Netherlands, which sits mostly below sea level. For example, a string of houses constructed in 2005 on the Maas River in the Netherlands was cited by English as a pioneering case study of a planned amphibious community.

Though such broad-scale plans remain far off in Louisiana, residents at Old River say that so far, the floating homes have allowed them to keep living and working at their fishing spot.

“We let it float when the river rises and the we can open immediately when the river falls with no requirement for repairs,” LaCour said.

How do you Recognize a Refugee in Lebanon?

Listen to their stories.

Scattered throughout the country, people are settling wherever they can. They often are living among Lebanese families, many of them poor themselves, and are at the mercy of local municipalities to welcome them into their communities. With rents very high, families cram as many people as possible into small spaces. They build tents out of found materials and donated plastic and turn dilapidated buildings into makeshift shelters. Even those who were not poor in Syria now find that the money that would buy them food for a week back home barely lasts a day in more expensive Lebanon.

Here are just a few among the hundreds of thousands across Lebanon.

Floating Architecture: Finding Ways to Live With Rising Water

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on May 29, 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.

There is a saying that “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.” And for centuries, the Dutch have built different types of barriers to hold back rising water and allow for development.

But as sea levels continue to rise, instead of trying to fight the water, Dutch architects and urban planners are taking a new approach: finding ways to live with it.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007 that global sea levels rose an average of nearly 8 inches in the past 100 years and predicted that rate will accelerate in this century. Higher water makes for more severe storm surges, floods and land loss. With many of the world’s largest cities located on coastal estuaries, high and dry urban land will become an increasingly rare commodity.

Cue a renewed look at floating architecture.

“In the last decade, floating architecture changed from a fringe niche market into a realistic opportunity for expanding the urban fabric beyond the waterfront,” said Koen Olthuis, lead architect at Waterstudio.NL, an aqua-architectural firm in the Netherlands. For Olthuis, creating floating buildings goes beyond architecture and is about a new vision for city planning.

Rather than putting entire cities on water, most of the proposals today combine water-based buildings with land-based architecture protected against water using flotation fixtures, raised platforms or anchored structures. That kind of flexible, integrated approach is crucial for the future, said Olthuis.

“Instead of buildings that are not able to cope with the changing needs of a city, urban planners will start creating floating dynamic developments that can react to new and unforeseen changes.”

And there’s a range of designs out there, including a float-in movie theater in Thailand and a massive Sea Tree, which uses the model of oil storage towers found on open seas to provide habitat for animals.

One of the most ambitious projects under development is in the Maldives, where Waterstudio.NL was tasked by the Maldives government to design a network of floating islands, including the Greenstar hotel that will feature 800 rooms, a conference center and a golf course. The $500 million project is set for completion by 2015.

Other projects in the works include Baca Architects’ amphibious house destined for the Thames River in Great Britain. During dry times, the home would rest on a fixed foundation but could rise up to 8 feet if flooding occurred.

As the industry expands, Olthuis said the biggest challenge isn’t technology but changing the public’s perception of living on water. To help encourage the transition, designers often make the structures look and feel just like those on land.

“We want to diffuse the border between land and water,” said Olthuis. “That is the first step in the general acceptance of floating cities.”

On the NewsHour this week, we’ll be looking at the impact of rising sea levels on Louisiana’s coast as part of our Coping with Climate Change series.

See our Report on Louisiana

Fishermen Pioneering

Floating Architecture

Native Lands Wash Away as Sea Levels Rise

Native Lands Wash Away as Sea Levels Rise | PBS NewsHour | June 1, 2012 | PBS smaller
See the full report at PBS NewsHour

Home for generations to small bands of the Houma and Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes in coastal Louisiana, this island is among the most vulnerable place in America to the effects of climate change. It is on the frontlines of severe coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and intensifying hurricanes and floods. In the 1950s there were an estimated 1,500 families on the island – now only 25 remain. The loss of the   people and the land weighs heavy on the community.

“We’re not going to have anything for our children to see, you know, if it keeps on washing away, if they don’t try to stop it some kind of way.” said Theresa Dardar of the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe “So, they will never see what we saw.”

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker Camera: Fritz Faeber and Saskia de Melker Editor: Saskia de Melker Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

Zach Condon Takes Beirut on a Journey Home

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera: Saskia de Melker, Tom LeGro, Annie Strother
Editor: Saskia de Melker

Zach Condon can tell you the exact moment he first discovered Balkan folk music.

“I used to work in a movie theater in Santa Fe that would play a lot of foreign films [and] there was a festival of Balkan films. I remember just making popcorn at the time, but I remember hearing the music of ‘Black Cat, White Cat’ [by] Emir Kusturica. My jaw just kind of hit the floor when I heard the sound of the brass coming out of the theater,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe that someone had taken it to that level of excitement and melancholy all mashed into one. And so I knew I had to find out what it was and how to do it.”

By age 16 he had dropped out of school and set off for Eastern Europe in search of that sound. When he returned home to New Mexico, Condon hunkered down in his bedroom to record his debut hit album, “The Gulag Orkestar.” He assembled a band of musicians under the name Beirut (which stems from Condon’s fascination with city names rather than any particular significance of the Lebanese capital) and has been wandering the world blending musical influences, especially from Eastern and Western Europe.

Condon insists that his nomadic lifestyle hasn’t dictated his music, but that his musical inspiration comes from his fantastical imagination. Yet most of Beirut’s albums have followed Condon’s travels in tandem and center heavily around foreign musical traditions, from “The Flying Club Cup’s” French chanson to an homage to Oaxaca, Mexico, in “March of the Zapotec.”

On his latest album, however, “The Rip Tide,” Condon breaks his wanderlust streak and brings the sound of Beirut home.

Condon says the album is much more personal and retrospective, as he, now 25, finds himself settling down and looking back at his past. Several of the album tracks, including “East Harlem” were based on melodies that he developed as a teenager growing up in New Mexico.

Condon wrote all the tracks for “The Rip Tide” in a farmhouse in upstate New York one winter. There are still the big brass rifts and ukulele solos that fans will recognize, but there’s also greater simplicity to the writing and arrangements.

“In a sense I was just trying to distill the sound that’s always been there with Beirut throughout the albums,” says Condon. “Despite the logical jumping around from locales and ideas, there was always something in the middle that carried it through, that kept people interested beyond a novelty. I was really trying to dig into that with this album.”