Terrascope Radio

Here we feature the work of first-year students – these are the final pieces produced over a semester for subject SP.360 – Terrascope Radio.

May 2019 Water is Life: Tradition and Transition in the Navajo Nation

Photo credit: Ari W. Epstein

About 30% of residents of the Navajo Nation don’t have running water, and for many of those who do, their water is contaminated with uranium, arsenic or other toxins. As a group of Terrascopers learns, any discussion of water in the Navajo Nation leads to even more complex questions about tradition, change, language and spirituality.

First Aired: May 15, 2019 


[running water]

Percy Yazzie: This is what you start with: water.

[running water]

[“Sacred Mask Song,” beating drum] 

[singing to traditional music]

Narrator: That is what we started with too- water. We’re a group of students in Terrascope, a first-year program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We started the fall semester with the goal of learning about water access in the Navajo Nation, which is located in the Four Corners region of the United States. Many people call the residents Navajo; however, one of the first things we learned is that “Navajo” is not what they call themselves.

Percy: Here we call ourselves “the five finger human beings,” the Diné Bilá Ashdlá’. I am the person, the human being with five fingers.

Narrator: Seven months after we began learning about the water issues in the Navajo Nation, we had the opportunity to travel there to learn first hand from members of the Diné community like Percy Yazzie, the man whose voice you just heard. We knew from our research that 30% of people in the Navajo Nation don’t have running water. And what limited water they do have often has toxic uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals in it. But talking to Percy while on a hike of the sacred Canyon de Chelley, we saw how this had affected him personally.

Percy: My son is not going to put any kids in this world, he says the waters are dirty, contaminated, the land is contaminated. It’s not pure anymore. He says the world. So he says I’m not going to put my kids in the world that’s contaminated like that. All they’re going to do is suffer, and I don’t want to see my kids suffer, he said. So in that way, I probably won’t have any grandkids to see.

Narrator: Yet many people still drink their water without knowing that it could be contaminated.  Neilroy Singer, an environmental specialist at Diné Environmental Institute & Outreach, does uranium testing, but even he wasn’t always aware.  

Neilroy: I loved drinking out of my own faucet, without worrying. You know, not knowing where the water was coming from, just knowing that it was replenishing me, that I needed it. We lived right by the river. We didn’t mine. We had no worries swimming in the river. We had no worries playing in the river. We fished in the river. Our whole family, we used to have functions and parties by the river. I know now, I know now where— where our water sources are coming from, and it— my eyes are open, and yeah. We do have a lot of radionuclide, heavy metal contamination problems all over the reservation.

Narrator: Due to its geology, the Navajo Nation has always had a lot of natural uranium in the ground, and in the 1930s, human activity exacerbated the situation.

Neilroy: Back in the 1930s, the U.S. government decided to create bombs, the atomic bomb during the World War II— the World War IIera, and they were testing, they were wondering which element was the strongest to use to create this explosion. So, they found out ok, uranium— uranium is the element that we need.

Narrator: The project he was referring to was the Manhattan Project, and as we talked to him, he told us that we were standing where the uranium for these atomic bombs was taken from. 

Neilroy: Mid ‘50s to the late ‘50s, I believe, the government milled out almost 7000 tons of uranium ore from here. So that’s a lot. And they had to haul it all the way to Shiprock. And when they did that, they left these sites open here, exposed. 

[eerie flute tones]

Narrator: Many of these former mine sites are still open today.  This causes toxic heavy metals such as uranium to leak into the drinking water. 

While visiting a local ranch, we met Elba Allen, a student at Navajo Technical University, or NTU

Elba: Well I’m in environmental science, so that’s why I’m talking about these issues because it’s something that I’m, you know, studying about, and something I’m learning about. We’re very connected to the land, we’ve been raised out here, so just imagine you grew up here as a kid, like this is all you’re going to see, you’re so connected to it.

Narrator: As we spoke to Elba, we looked around and saw all these grand mesas, these huge stretches of land, and it just didn’t seem like we, as tiny humans, could have any impact on them. These great, age-old structures seemed so beyond us, but the harmful impacts people are having on the environment are real. And that was hard to believe.  

Elba: You know, we have refineries around here that are trying to frack in Chaco Canyon, which is a historical place. So there’s like a lot of water contamination, even at NTU, you know, we have uranium in our water, we don’t drink our water at Crownpoint, because, you know— and this is in America.

Narrator: Our conversation with Elba didn’t just stick to water.  She showed us the way that other environmental problems interact with Diné life, and we saw how easily physical problems could become more complex.

Elba: We’re on a ranch, and unfortunately one of the problems we have on the Navajo Nation is overgrazing. It is interesting because a lot of our elders depend on sheep, specifically like churro sheep, and we have a lot of cattle here, but this has led to overgrazing and we have a drought so there’s a lot of issues going on.

Narrator: In the Navajo Nation, small-scale sustenance farming and ranching are important both spiritually and financially.  But as Elba points out, ranching or farming is difficult when there’s drought. And drought makes overgrazing problems even worse. Overgrazing happens when animal herds’ feeding exceeds what the environment can handle. This, in turn, worsens drought conditions that are already tough because of climate change. Which, of course, makes ranching and farming even more difficult.

Hearing about all these environmental issues, it seemed more and more apparent that sticking to traditions, like farming, can be hard in the face of these physical obstacles, like the scarcity of water.

Elba: And unfortunately a lot of our elders don’t want to change with the times, but that’s very important. I see our culture evolving, and it has evolved in the past; through our language, our traditions, we’ve embraced a lot of different ideas. We’ve become farmers and ranchers and traditionally we weren’t. I think now is a point in which the traditional Diné philosophy and the more modern Diné philosophy is kind of in conflict because there’s a lot of issues, especially with natural resources and environmental problems, that a lot of the younger generation is seeing and is trying to be active— proactive about, but there’s also the traditionalists like our másánís, our grandmothers, and the cheiis, our grandfathers, who want to stick to a certain way of life.

Narrator: Before we visited the Navajo Nation, we thought we had some level of understanding of how culture intertwines with ways the Diné address water scarcity and environmental problems. During our semester of research, we had read studies, seen statistics, and even heard from some Diné. But it only took a few conversations for us to realize the deeper complexity of keeping tradition alive in the face of adversity. Talking to more people only revealed more and more complicated layers.

[Slow guitar music]

Narrator: Brandon Francis is an agricultural researcher at New Mexico State University, and he also practices and promotes traditional farming on his own time. He sees traditional agriculture as part of the future of his nation. But he understands that the lack of water makes traditional farming more difficult. Part of his work has been to cultivate drought-resistant plants that can survive the increasingly dry conditions. 

Brandon Francis: When you put that first seed in the ground, as planters, as people who plant things, we were making a holy pact with our Mother Earth and Father Sky that we’re going to love all things no matter how small or how big, we’re gonna love all things. That’s the pact we made, just like the pact we made with the sun not to abuse that sacred knowledge, but as corn planting people we made a pact to love all things and hold things sacred. And I think that’s one of the things that broke our people is we’ve lost that sense of k’é, community, and sense of community just doesn’t mean people who live in the same region, people who are blood related. It’s a sense of community with these plants, with the water, with the earth, and all things that we gotta view them as interconnected. And we’ve lost that, we’ve lost that connection.

Narrator: With farming and traditional practices at the heart, Brandon has hope for how his people can move forward. Farming stands firmly planted in Diné cultural identity—and so does language.

Brandon: Us as Navajo people, we are created from two ears of corn. And us as Navajo people, we are song and prayer given physical form. Because when they were first making us out of those ears of corn, they would sing songs, and they would say holy words, because we always believe that words, they have power and meaning beyond the ones we give them as definitions. They were given purpose. So that’s why when we talk as Navajo people we try not to yell or raise our voice or say things in anger because we know that these words have power and they can hurt people at a very physical, spiritual and mental level. So we always tell people you gotta be eloquent in what you say and choose your words very wisely. Because when they were making us, they put a lot of thought and song and prayer into us.

Narrator: As Brandon points out, language is deeply tied into Diné creation. By holding on to language, people can more easily retain a firm hold on their traditions. These words and language aren’t just important for preserving tradition, they also play a crucial role in communication with older generations. Emma Robbins is the director of the Navajo Water Project for Dig Deep, a group that improves water access by installing running water systems in homes. She told us how communication in Diné is integral to her daily work with families. 

Emma Robbins: When I talk to my family, the elders, you know, they know the work that I’m doing. They’re always really proud, and one of the parts that they are really proud of is not necessarily installing these home water systems, but even just coming back to the res and wanting to stay here. But I do think a lot of times they’re concerned, like a lot of times my family, my elders, will get after me, and be like you need to be fluent in Navajo. And that’s something that is extremely important. And I’m like “you’re right.” Once we lose that language, we’re totally just going to lose our culture. You know, a lot of times when we work with our clients, they might not speak English, and so when I go in and if I can’t explain something clearly, it’s like “okay, I’m not even able to talk with them.”

Narrator: Without fluency in the Diné language, Emma finds it difficult to do her work, a work that brings running water to people who otherwise might never receive it.  

[Slow melodic guitar music]

Narrator: On our trip there, a lot of the conversations we had started with water, and how to get people clean water, but they often turned towards culture, and how to keep that culture, and how language was integral to this. It seemed to us that many members of the Diné community believe that preserving tradition is just as important as solving the environmental problems. Many people in the Nation are worried that the Diné language is being lost, and with it, the culture is being lost as well. 

Tina Becenti is an official in the Baca-Prewitt chapter of the Navajo Nation, and we asked for her thoughts.

Tina Becenti: So our language itself soon may be extinct, sooner than we think. Our nature, our roots to this Mother Earth come from our culture, come from our traditions, come from our blessings to the snow, to the rain gods and all of those are being forgotten. We’re forgetting who we are as Native Americans.

Earl Tuley: What we believe was important, we lost it along the way. 

Meriah: Earl Tuley is the Vice President of Diné CARE, a Navajo Nation non-profit that uses grassroot tactics to advocate for environmental protection. He reflected on how his culture will be affected in the coming years.  

Earl: You know, we’re being told that in your lifetime, you know, you’re going to lose “Navajo.” We’re going to lose our people walking in moccasins, having my hair the way that it is, speaking our language, eating our diet. And I really, really thought that it meant that it was gonna be Navajos were going to cease, and we’re not going to see them on the surface of the Earth anymore. It really scared me.

Narrator: He was frightened because he thought that the Diné would simply vanish, but he realized it was more than that. It was the loss of the traditions that was more realistic, and maybe even more scary.

Percy Yazzie told us what he thought needed to be done.

Percy: We need to step back, one step and probably take time. And probably sit and think how this world is going to be better for us, how we are going to better it for the future generation, ya know. What are we leaving them? We’re leaving them nothing. The waters are dirty, contaminated, the land is contaminated. 

[Voices overlap of people talking about the problems in the Navajo Nation]

It’s not pure anymore…

All that time I was thinking we are drinking this? From this tank? So I was shocked. It was very sad for me to find that out that way…

We had a lot of coal mining and there was uranium mining back in the day and we have water issues so there’s like…

We’ve lost that sense of k’é, community…

It’s so complicated because it’s like…

What we believed was important, we lost it along the way…

We don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s no plan afterwards… 

In your lifetime…

[overlapping voices stop]

…you’re going to lose Navajo.

Percy: 50 years from now, you probably won’t hear a person sing…

[Percy singing traditional song]

Narrator: Culture is an integral part of life and identity in the Nation, and the Diné culture comes with a long history of resilience through hardships. We still have a lot to learn, but we’ve begun to see how the Diné continue to survive.

Miss Navajo Nation: Through my reign right now, my platform is resiliency. And I chose resiliency because that is all I’ve known my entire life. 

Narrator: That was Autumn Montoya, the reigning Miss Navajo Nation for 2018–2019. She explained to us that her job is to be a role model of tradition, a teacher of history, and a community leader. She shared with us a lot of hope and faith in the strength of her people. 

Autumn Montoya (Miss Navajo Nation): If we work together, our future will not be lost, we won’t go extinct.

Neilroy: We cannot just put aside our tradition, our culture, we have to incorporate that in things that we do on our land, especially if we want to bring everything back to the beauty way, hajong, meaning balance and harmony. 

Narrator: We learned that physical problems like water access and contamination don’t exist in isolation. They can’t be solved just by just building a filtration plant or a pipeline to every house. Yet even with the scope of these issues, there is still hope when resilient people come together.

[Percy singing]

Narrator: From Emma’s work with the Dig Deep project, providing water to remote homes in the   Navajo Nation to Neil’s work testing for uranium in community water supplies, we have repeatedly seen the ways the Diné work to improve the lives of their people.

Percy: If you don’t want to take and take and take and take and give nothing back, and if you want to change and give something back, this is what you start with, water. Who gave this to us? Mother Earth, huh. She’s given us a drink. So for me to have this whole bottle to myself, that’s some sort of greed. So for me to give something back, I give Mother Earth a drink first… 

[Water splashing]

Percy: …and then I drink…

[Sound of drinking]

Percy …so I don’t have this thing all to myself.

[Soft instrumental music, “La Citadelle” plays]

Narrator: Percy’s gratefulness and respect for the earth was inspiring.  After a semester of research and a week of immersing ourselves in the Navajo Nation, we were left thinking about our own traditions and culture, our purpose in life, and our goals for the future. We asked ourselves just as Earl had asked… 

Earl: …where did you come from? Why are you here, on this Earth? And then, where are you going to go, after this is all over?

[Traditional singing, “Red Ochre” plays]

Student voice: This story was created by students from Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope program in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparative Media Studies. 

To Terrascope director David McGee, coordinator Elise Chambers, lecturer Ari Epstein, and undergraduate teaching fellow Landon Chu: thank you so much for being a part of Terrascope and allowing us to have this amazing experience.

We would like to thank Brandon Francis and Karyn Denny, without whom this story would not have been possible, as well as Professor Steven Chischilly from Navajo Technical University, Professor Anne Semrau from Diné College, and Terrascope alum Levon Thomas.

We also express our gratitude to the officials of the Navajo Nation government, in particular Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Jason John from the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. Likewise, we thank the Lane family of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture Farm and Emma Robbins from Dig Deep for opening their homes, farms, and workplaces to us. 

Finally, thank you to all of the amazing people we met at the Navajo Nation. You helped us to see the world in new ways. 

We are Terrascope Radio 2019: Aashini Shah, Christopher Kiel, Daniel Amaya, Jorge Nin, Laura Chen, Hou Lin, Meriah Gannon, Natasha Stamler, Neosha Narayanan, Patricia Chan, and Sreya Vangara. We hope you enjoyed the show. 

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Photo credit: Ari W. Epstein

From artificial beaches maintained by natural ocean currents, to projects that make extra room for rivers flowing through cities, the Dutch know how to protect themselves from water. And each of these systems is also designed to meet other needs of the community it serves. We’re going to need to learn how to do that too.

Television sound from the 1953 flood courtesy of Sound and Vision, via Deltawerken Mediagallery.


[Crashing waves and seagulls]

Narrator 1: There’s this town called Petten, right on the western coast of the Netherlands. A hundred years ago, if you had looked up Petten on a map, it wouldn’t be where it is now. And it would be different from where it was in 1701, and different again from where it was in 1421.

Narrator 2: Petten, or at least a village of that name, has existed in four different locations in the Netherlands over the past 600 years. So where did the first three Pettens go?

Lawrence Lishout: Over there you see a lot of things on the beach. It marks the old Petten. The village right now, this is the fourth Petten. Two Pettens are gone in the sea, including the people. The third Petten is demolished by the Germans in the war.

Narrator 1: That's Lawrence Lishout—he’s the treasurer of the Petten town council. He’s standing on a massive sand hill, pointing across a range of sand dunes towards the beach and the ocean beyond. The dunes act as a barrier- behind them is a dike…

Narrator 2: …which is a long artificial wall, built to prevent flooding from the sea.

Narrator 1: And behind that dike is the current village of Petten. On the other side of the tall dunes there's a large beach and expansive ocean. That's where Petten used to be. You can distantly see wooden posts sticking up from the water, a ghostly reminder of the structures that used to house the people of Petten.

[Soft piano music]

Narrator 2: Hundreds of years ago, the two oldest Pettens used to be above the ocean line. But due to two severe floods, the Pettens and the land surrounding them were washed away by the sea. And until very recently, the land where the beach and enormous dunes now stand was completely covered in water as well. 

[Ocean waves]

The dunes and beach are all new, dug up from the bottom of the ocean. Before that, the tide could rise up, all the way to the edge of the dike, and almost overtop it, into the low-lying village below.

Lawrence Lishout: This was all water. What you see over there, the black one, that's the old dike, and about here, there was the water line, so this is all new sand.

Narrator 1: How are the people of the fourth Petten able to avoid that same fate? How do they keep their town from being swallowed by the sea, in a country where half of the land is lower than one meter above sea level?

Narrator 2: That’s where Lawrence and the town council come into play. They negotiated with the government on behalf of their village as they attempted to protect the coastal regions from being "taken by the sea.” In each village, the project is different. But for kilometers along the coast of the Netherlands, local governments have been working with engineers in order to protect the coastline. In Petten, that meant dredging tons of sand from the bottom of the ocean to build these massive dunes and beaches between the village and the water.

[Footsteps through sand]

Lawrence: You see there- the ship? With the orange roof? That's the ship who takes the sand out of the sea and puts it in big pipes to the beach. And over there, that's the dunes.

Narrator 1: Of course, as with any massive project, there was some disagreement. The national government had a strategy. It wanted to build these large dunes and beach, but this would require removing some buildings along the coast. The residents, of course, had their own feelings about the plan.

Narrator 2: Many of the people’s complaints were valid; the dunes were going to disrupt their lifestyle and livelihoods by affecting the town’s tourism, and who was going to pay for it? They wanted to adapt the plan to fit their village’s needs. And with the help of the town council, the national government adapted their plan and financial strategy. Now that the dunes have been built, people are generally happy that they're there, and are less fearful about living on land so close to a stormy and volatile sea.

Lawrence: There is no water coming over the dike anymore. Because I live right behind the dike; and when it was storming, I saw the white coming over the dikes. I stayed inside. 


Narrator 1: The protections that the government has built, such as these large dunes and beaches in Petten, do a good job at protecting the people on land. And the engineers are confident that they’ll provide safety for many years to come.

Narrator 2: So why does this matter? Why is it important that the people of Petten have these dunes and now feel safe? 

[Soft piano music]

Because, we often hear about the failures of people adapting to their climates, of them being outsmarted by nature and its elements. But this adaptation actually worked- or at least, is working right now. The plan that the government made, with heavy input from the residents of Petten, is effective at its job and fits into the community. That’s something we don't hear about every day.

Narrator 1: But the Netherlands is used to building these large-scale projects to protect itself from flooding. The Dutch have been protecting themselves from the sea for hundreds of years. In fact, the first small dikes in the Netherlands were built back in Roman times. Now, there are dikes and other protections along the entire coast of the country. For the most part, the people who live there feel safe.

Narrator 2: But have the Dutch always felt safe?

[Intense music]

Narrator 2: It’s 1953.The Netherlands has just witnessed one of the largest floods in its history. Almost 2,000 people died when a massive storm and high tide hit the southwest coast— the delta region of the Netherlands. 

[Man speaking in Dutch]

Narrator 2: The dikes were not large or strong enough, and the water overtopped them, flooding the delta. Many of those who survived live with haunting memories of the water.

Narrator 1: Yurun Kramer is the press officer of Maeslantkering, a huge flood gate that protects the city of Rotterdam. He describes the impact the flood has had on one such survivor.

Yurun Kramer: One person from Zeeland who witnessed the big flood- she was five years old. This February 1st was 65 years ago that the big flood happened. If she hears on the radio or on the television that a storm is coming in, she knows in her head she is safe, but she still is afraid. That’s normal, you know? It's like a traumatic experience.

Narrator 2: For a country whose national pride lies in water management, the 1953 flood was more than a tragedy; it was a call to action.

Baukje Kothuis: It was a big disaster, but it was also kind of embarrassing for the Dutch engineers and for the Dutch community.

Narrator 1: That’s Baukje Kothuis, also known as Bee. She’s a design anthropologist currently working on flood risk reduction structures and strategies at the Delft University of Technology. She has studied extensively how flood management in the Netherlands has changed over time, and she has a lot to say about how the people and Dutch government reacted to the 1953 flood.

Bee: Well we had to do something to make the country safe again after 1953, but also to restore the trust in Dutch water management.

Narrator 2: As a result of this disaster, the country felt that it had to do something drastic to prevent this from ever happening again. They already had flood barriers, and they had felt safe behind them. But then those protections failed.

Bee: At the time, the way people looked at coping with flood risk was “well, the water, or nature is our enemy,” you know, “and we have to fight this nature. And how do we do this? We can implement big technical solutions.” That’s the way we did it at the time.

Narrator 1: So the Dutch took action. 

[Inspirational piano music]

They built huge structures to protect themselves from the vicious ocean, all across the delta region of the country. In Zeeland, the area where the 1953 flood first occurred, engineers constructed the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier.

Narrator 2: Tjerk Zitman is a hydraulic engineer at the Delft University of Technology. He took us to see the Eastern Scheldt barrier to see its enormous scale. The storm surge barrier is essentially a bridge with gates underneath that can be lowered when there is danger of flooding. But what makes the structure distinct is that the whole thing is open to the public. 

Narrator 1: Visitors on a daytrip can walk through the enormous structure and read about how it protects the area. There’s even a waterpark for kids that opens during the summer, 

[Splashing water]

an aquarium with some of the local wildlife 

[Animal honking]

and an excursion boat that takes you right up to the storm surge barrier. The barrier is functional, but also accessible to the community that it protects.

Narrator 2: Walking along the bridge past the enormous sluice gates, you can hear thousands of gallons of rushing water flowing underneath. 

[Water flowing] 

In a severe storm, the barriers are lowered, and the waves will crash against these massive concrete gates. 

Narrator 1: The sluice gates, along with the rest of the delta protections, have worked so far. There hasn’t been a flood on such a massive or destructive scale since 1953. The barriers look strong, as if they could withstand any storm. They’ve made the Dutch feel safe again.

Narrator 2: Here’s Bee again, the anthropologist.

Bee: Actually, the Rijkswaterstaat- which is the Dutch Army Corps of Engineers- at the beginning of the ‘90s, they actually said “Well, the Netherlands is finished. We’ve done it.” One of the things that were being said at the time was “Well, God created the world, and the Dutch created the Netherlands.”  It shows very clearly how the Dutch felt, you know, “we did it and we won and it’s all done.”

Narrator 2: But the technological euphoria didn’t last forever. Once they felt safe against the ocean, people in the Netherlands started to think about the environmental implications of these massive barriers. Cutting off water during a storm- water that normally flows through a river or estuary- can have drastic impacts on the ecology of that region. The Dutch had the time and resources, so why not take nature into account? Instead of viewing nature as just a hostile threat, Dutch engineers attempted to work with nature and its forces to keep the water at bay.

[Birds chirping, footsteps on beach]

[Rolling waves]

Narrator 1: One of these natural protections is called the Sand Engine. Imagine- in front of you is a massive expanse of sand and tiny shells. You keep walking toward this isolated and looming structure- it’s so near, but somehow just out of reach. At the edge of the sand, you can see the dark blue expanse that is the ocean. On the other side is a giant hill, stretching kilometers down the coastline, acting as a final defense between the sea and village. And all of this beach is part of the Sand Engine. Tjerk Zitman took us on a walk along this engineering marvel.

Tjerk Zitman: So now you’re actually on the Sand Engine. The Engine is over there, it's the water. It all starts with flat sand, and then due to turbulence in the airflow, these small dunes are formed. That’s natural. Once you have a small bump, it increases the turbulent motion and that stimulates further growth of the dunes.

Narrator 2: Essentially the Sand Engine is a large stretch of over 21 million cubic meters of sand scooped up from the bottom of the ocean.

Tjerk: Before, what we did is, on the entire coast, we did the nourishment- taking the sand, sail to the shore, and then just put the sand everywhere to spread it out. This idea is to have nature do the spreading for you from north to south. 

Narrator 2: The ocean and wind work together like an engine to lengthen this artificial beach. This helps to preserve the dunes, which are one of the most effective barriers against the ocean.

Tjerk: So now we're hoping that with the Sand Engine and the nature- that's why we're proud of it, building with nature- that this hollow shape is reconstructed over the entire stretch of coast, making it stable and then afterwards requiring less maintenance.

[Intrigued music] 

Narrator 1: The Sand Engine looks and functions just like a beach. It’s a popular destination for tourists in the summer. This is another example of how the Dutch create designs that enrich communities in addition to keeping them safe.

Narrator 2: When looking at each of these flood protections- the dunes in Petten, the Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier, and the Sand Engine- there are distinctive differences in the ways they address similar issues. But the differences are due to the communities that they were built to protect. The adaptations and their functions are designed based on the needs of the community.

Narrator 1: This type of adaptation requires a great deal of communication among government, engineers, and residents. Think back to Petten, where the government came up with a solution and the residents found a way to make that plan work for their community. Another good example of this type of communication occurred in the village of Lent in the western Netherlands, right next to Germany.

Andrea: My name is Andrea Voskens. I have been stakeholder manager in this project.

Narrator 2: The project Andrea is talking about is part of a national initiative called Room for the River. Its purpose is to protect riverside areas throughout the country. In the village of Lent, across the Rhine River from the larger city of Nijmegen, where Andrea works, this meant constructing an entire second channel to divert flood water from the Rhine.

Andrea: We changed from defending ourselves from the water- from keeping the water outside- to an attitude where we want to create more room for the river in case it’s needed.

Narrator 1: Andrea’s part in this enormous project was primarily focused on communication. She was in charge of communicating between the project managers and the residents. If the residents had complaints, Andrea would be there to solve their problems. 

Andrea: I was 24 hours, seven days a week, during the whole period, available for the people. Day and night, holiday, no holiday, they could always call.

Narrator 2: But there are consequences that come with rerouting such an enormous amount of water into a new channel.

Narrator 1: Especially when people are living there, right where you want the water to go.

Andrea: This used to be the village Lent, where people lived generation after generation. It has been a very strong community and then suddenly our national government came with this whole idea. So you can imagine that the municipality did not agree. 

Narrator 2: In Lent, this meant moving 50 families out of their homes to protect the larger city of Nijmegen from flooding in periods of high water. This may seem like a solution that would cause a lot of anger from the village residents. But the government was careful to work with the residents to make sure they understood why it was essential that they move; and that they would be taken care of, with Andrea as a mediator. 

Narrator 1: The residents were allowed to discuss the plan with technical experts. They came up with a modified plan for diverting the floodwater, and some of their ideas were actually incorporated into the final project.

Andrea: They were a serious partner. They had their own experts, and we just talked professional. And if you speak at the same level then you get trust.

Narrator 2: Members of the 50 households who had to relocate were well compensated.

Andrea: They had more negotiations with them, and they got enough money to rebuild their house. I did not hear any complaint about it. 

[Energized guitar music]

Narrator 1: Even though the government was essentially kicking people out of their homes, it was willing to work with the residents to make sure they were part of the discussion and planning phases of the project. And through years of fair negotiation, the project was finished, and now, the city is protected from catastrophe. 

When it floods, water flows right over the abandoned area, instead of into the populated city.

Andrea: I think the people of the city of Nijmegen just are very happy with the area, but they too are more conscious of the behavior of the river. When there is high water, everyone comes to see, suddenly. But they are not worried, really.

Narrator 2: Room for the River in Lent is a good example of how solutions to a problem can be successful when there is enough communication between the people who create the solutions and the people who will be directly affected by them.

[String music with anticipation]

Narrator 1: So what? Why do we care about what happened in the Netherlands, and how the Dutch protect themselves from the sea?

Narrator 2: We care because in the future, we are going to have to learn how to adapt to οur climate too and do it in a way that fits within local communities.

Narrator 1: We’ve seen how the needs of the community can influence the design and function of flood protections. And there are so many other examples of this type of adaptation in the Netherlands such as a parking garage underneath protective dunes and a gorgeous boulevard that also acts as a concrete barrier against the sea.

Narrator 2: While these have been successful adaptations for their environmental issues, we can’t expect this to be the norm. Dredging millions of tons of sand to nourish a beach can work in the Netherlands, where they have the technology, resources, and tourists to appreciate the beach. That doesn’t mean that another coastal region will have the same level of success. Other regions will have different resources, different cultural values and different needs to adapt to.

Narrator 1: Unfortunately, with constantly changing climate, we have to start thinking about these issues now. We will all have to think about how climate change will affect our communities, people’s culture, politics, and society all have to be taken into account. And thaťs hard. But as we saw in the Netherlands, it is possible. 

[Hopeful music]

[Carnival music]

Narrator 2: This piece was produced by Terrascope Radio, a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed in collaboration with MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies. Terrascope is a freshman learning community focused on solving complex environmental problems. 

Narrator 1: We’d like to thank David McGee…

Narrator 2: …director of the Terrascope program…

Narrator 1: …Elise Chambers…

Narrator 2: …for organizing many of the logistics on our trip to the Netherlands; 

Narrator 1: Sherry Zhou

Narrator 2: our undergrad teaching fellow,

Narrator 1: Tjerk Zitman and Baukje Kothuis, 

Narrator 2: for fearlessly leading us through the Netherlands

Narrator 1 the people we spoke to in the Netherlands; 

Narrator 2: and of course, Ari Epstein, 

Narrator 1: the Terrascope Radio class instructor.

Narrator 2: Sound from TV news about the 1953 flood is from Sound Envision. 

Narrator 1: Courtesy of the Delta Verken Media Gallery. 

Narrator 2: This has been Gabriel Owens-Florez, Caroline Boone, Kelly Chen, Landon Chu, AJ Cox, Charvi Gopal, Jarek Kwiecinski, Anne Tong Lee, Sarah Weidman

Narrator 1: …and Jeremy Dudo. Thank you for listening.

[Music continues with cheerful laughter]
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May 2017 The Snake on the Lake Was Not a Mistake: The Rise of Modern Mexico City

Photo credit: Ari W. Epstein

In this personal exploration with radio-drama elements, Terrascopers try to understand how such an enormous city, with such a large population and so many unresolved issues, still manages to work so well. The answers lie both in the city’s ancient roots and in the ingenuity of its modern-day population.

First aired: May 17th, 2017 ·


[ominous music]

Narrator 1: You seem to be hundreds of years in the past, standing upon a lake. The fresh water sparkles and ripples gently under the bright midday sun. 

[low note drop]

You look around and see beautiful mountain ridges. Their gray-brown slopes capped with white snow. Some people approach. They gaze at you. No, through you. And point.

[rock music]

Suddenly, they drop some rocks where they were pointing, and build a city. Then, the stone structures around you quickly fade into clusters of modern buildings. Now you, with 20 million of your closest friends, live in a massive metropolis placed neatly upon the lake—except the lake… doesn’t… exactly exist anymore. So you’re now in a desert where water coming out of a faucet feels like coins coming out of a slot machine. And the mountains that surround you, they happen to be active volcanoes. Also, earthquakes like to drop by every once in a while—just to shake things up a little.

So it turns out that you’re trapped in this part of the city, and you need to get to the other side of it. What do you do? Walk? No, it’s way too far. Drive? Nah, traffic is at a standstill. Bike? It’s too dangerous. Subway? It could be worth a shot. You get on the subway. It’s packed like a sardine can. The doors close, slicing the people who are just a bit too slow. Then, the train rushes to your destination. Jerking hard enough to form a few human-shaped dents in the wall of each stop. You get off the subway, and somehow your phone is no longer in your pocket.

[music stops]

In fact, you don’t have a pocket anymore. Somebody stole your pocket.

[rock music]

[irritated tone]

That’s it. You’ve had enough of this city. The daily temperature fluctuations. The ongoing water crisis. The danger of death by volcano. The slow transportation. The wall of mountains. The lurking…

[indistinguishable overlapping problem descriptions]

[alarm clock]


Narrator 2: Ugh. You feel a bit shaky. 

[sounds of transit and birds]

It’s been 5 weeks since you moved to Mexico City, and you’re still having those nightmares. 

[soft guitar music]

Your initial fears of what the city would be persist. 


Alright. Rise and shine. It’s time for work. 

You roll out of bed and stifle a groan.

Your long hair is a frizzy mess, an absolute monster to comb. And your skin is soaked in sweat.

You hastily get dressed for work as your casual clothes lay temptingly across your dresser.

[cup being set down]

Your breakfast is only a speedy cup of coffee before you sprint off to the street, where you try to catch a minibus.

[car honks and drives away]

After a long ride, you arrive at the subway where you join the throngs of people, surging towards the doors. Fifty minutes pass on the train, standing practically in a stranger’s arms. Until at last, your transfer comes. 

[subway stop bell rings]

[adventurous music]

Two left turns and a flight of stairs later, you’re back on another train. Navigating through the intersections of blue and green and pink and red lines used to baffle you, but after following the flow of thousands of people in the station for the past few weeks, you’re starting to get the hang of it too. Your stop comes, and soon you emerge into the free air. You only have a few minutes more before you’ll be trapped in an office again. 

[car drives off]

You savor them.

[cups clank, muffled voices]

Your shift is long. Afterwards, you grab drinks with your coworkers, as you often do. But tonight, you decide to duck out early. All you want is your bed, but you have to make your way back through the city again before getting there. 

You take one subway, transfer onto another, and eventually end your journey back on a minibus, headed towards the edge of the city. 

[thunder and rain falling]

The summer rains begin to fall. They’ve come late today. Your favorite scent. That peculiar way that concrete smells when it’s wet floats in through the window. You smile. Finally, you’re back. 

[curious music]

It feels strange how this place and the city are starting to feel more and more like home. Mexico City can hardly be called perfect, but something about it is beginning to capture your love. It has a beauty in its haphazard ways and in its people.


A shower helps get the tension out of your shoulders, and the rain falling on your roof helps lull you to sleep.

[more rain and curious music]

Narrator 3: Vibrant.

Narrator 4: Surprising.

Narrator 3: Diverse.

Mexico City is thriving with chaos and confusion. I’m Jacob Miske.

Jennifer (Narrator 4): And I’m Jennifer Lu.

We visited Mexico City as part of a group of students studying urban resilience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And, we had done some research on the city beforehand.

Jacob (Narrator 3): We learned about some of its problems: the water crisis, the sprawl, and the transit system. But we were amazed that it functioned pretty smoothly and we were taken aback by the beauty of the city.

Jennifer: We talked to a lot of people, and asked them why this city manages to work. Professor Roberto Rodriguez teaches Architecture at Tecnológico de Monterrey. He said that the answers are rooted in Mexico City’s history and he told us a legend about the city’s beginnings.

[drums beating to a tune]

It was a divine message that guided the Mexica tribe to their new home. 

Roberto Rodriguez: The gods told one of the leaders, “when you find an eagle eating a snake in a small island, you make the foundation of the city there.” 

Jennifer: This just so happened to be on a tiny island in the middle of a giant lake. So that’s where the leaders of the Mexica tribe decided to settle. Surrounded by water and snow-capped volcanoes, their civilization grew into the Aztec empire, and their city into Tenochtitlan, their royal capital. 

Jacob: Usually, cities use the surrounding land for agriculture to support their population, but Tenochtitlan was in the middle of a lake. How does one go about building a farm on water?

Jennifer: For the Aztecs? Willow trees, bundles of reeds, some mud, and a lot of ingenuity. They combined mud with branches over the shallow lake bed, forming floating islands rooted by trees and posts. 

Jacob: But then, the conquistadors arrived. They overturned Aztec society, their language, and their culture.

[slow melody of low notes]

Jacob: The two groups of people blended, and from there, modern Mexico City was born.

[bells ringing, cars honking]

Jacob: Walking through the zócalo, the historic center of town, you can see a live timeline of the transformation. There are modern stores next to colonial-style government buildings next to a huge gothic-inspired cathedral.

Jennifer: But what about the Aztecs? Their city lies underneath the plaza. The excavation of the templo mayor, one of the main temples, is right outside the square.

Jacob: The Spaniards completely changed the city, building over the pyramids and draining the lakes. In fact, most of the canals are now paved streets. But some of the Aztecs’ original canals and floating islands remain. Although the atmosphere of the waterways is a bit different now.

[street music and cheers]

Jacob: Colorful, gondola-like boats called trajineras, with names like Laura and Gabriela, crowded the water with partiers and locals.

[trumpet mariachi solo]

Jacob: Mariachi played along the banks, hoping to get picked up.

Jennifer: Vendors in their own little boats definitely capitalized on this odd mix of partiers and families all taking a trip down the waterways. They had soft drinks, beer, corn on the cob, mini stoves with fresh tacos, and they appeared out of nowhere.

Jacob: But it was our eighth day there, so we weren’t super surprised. People managed to find creative places to sell their goods. From vendors on boats to ones on subway trains, selling pens, to men walking through the highways selling pistachios. There’s always some form of a market, and it’s been that way since the Aztecs.

Jennifer: In the National Museum of Anthropology, professor Rúben Gutierrez, who teaches Architecture at Tec de Monterrey, showed us a diorama of an Aztec market.

Rúben Gutierrez: You can witness that their street life and selling things in the outdoors was a historical factor that continues through our days.

[street music in Spanish]

Jacob: Informal stands of magazines and candy, large outdoor markets under tents filled with loud music and noisy chatter—markets were everywhere.

[market sounds—music and movement]

Jennifer: Commercial chain supermarkets have come to Mexico City, but the culture of outdoor markets persists, despite competition from these larger, big brand options.

Jacob: We made a special trip to the Mercado de San Juan, a well-established indoor public market. It’s located in a warehouse-like building that lets air circulate, and where light casts a natural glow onto the towers of fresh produce.

Jennifer: There, we met Olivita. A small woman with large glasses who says that she’s the oldest vendor in the market. Like many of the vendors, she let us taste some of her food, including her homemade mole, a savory Mexican salsa made with chili powder and chocolate.

Jacob: The amazing thing is, she’s been there since she was nine. Following the footsteps of the last six generations of her family.

Olivita: …seis generaciones, abuelo, abuela, y mamá y nosotros…

Jacob: She’s grown up with the market and seen all exchanges.

Jennifer: She told us that the vendors used to display their goods on the ground.

[Olivita speaking in the background]

Jennifer: But since then, the stands in the market have expanded upward, and the city, it’s grown outward.

Olivita: Era muy diferente. La capital de México…

English voiceover: The capital of Mexico was smaller.

Olivita: Eramos pocos…

English voiceover: There were fewer of us

Jennifer: Today, houses blanket the surrounding hills like a bright patchwork quilt. It’s expensive to live near the city center.

Jacob: A lot of people are forced to live on the outskirts. As a result, Mexico City’s area is five times bigger than it was in 1950. It’s now almost twice the size of New York City.

[jazzy music]

Onésimo Flores: I would say this city should be one that allows you the opportunity to have a roof. To have a home. To have a shelter. And it’s a city that gives you access. Access to opportunity. Access to cultural experience. Access to jobs. In Mexico, we’ve been able to deliver both, but never bundles.

Jacob: Onésimo Flores, CEO of cata4, an urban planning and transit consultancy, explained the government’s efforts to keep the city moving.

Onésimo: So, you want access to opportunity, you live close to the central area. You want access to a roof, and I mean, you know, for the vast majority of the people that have a lower income, you have to move 20, 30, 40 kilometers away. And part of the challenge is: how do we rethink that equation, and try to put them together?

Jennifer: That tug of war between job opportunities and affordable housing really comes out in the complex structure of the transit system.

[birds chirping, cars driving]

Jacob: Mexico City’s transit system is a chaotic masterpiece.

[car horn, palettes being stacked, subway squeaking]

Jacob: In the beginning, the city had a government-owned subway system and a privately-owned bus system.

[car driving]

Jennifer: However, an informal bus system arose. And it was winning.

Onésimo: So in the very late 70’s, the government decided to take over all of the buses in the city and to create a government-owned bus company. And it was planning nirvana.

Jennifer: They envisioned wider roads, an expanded subway, and a bus system to complement it. It was supposed to revolutionize transit.

Onésimo: And it was a time where planners and government officials were really ambitious. They thought they could completely reshape the city. So what happens? What happened was complexity. Administering a bus company with over 2000 buses at that time proved a very complex challenge. The buses didn’t get fixed. The schedules weren’t met. So eventually, this bus company started to die. 

Jacob: But a replacement quickly swooped in. An informal system began where taxi drivers would pick up multiple riders and take them where they needed to go.

Jennifer: Eventually, these taxis were replaced with mini buses and routes became more formalized.

Onésimo: At the beginning, there were government raids to stop these big bus— informal operators from cannibalizing transit demand from the bus company. But eventually the government realized that, in essence, these informal operators were the guys that were enabling the city to keep moving. 

[soft, chill music]

Jacob: It is a highly disorganized way of getting people to their destinations, but somehow, it works.

Jennifer: But what’s really interesting is how the structures come about. What works doesn’t necessarily come from piles of blueprints or complicated planning by large organizations. It comes from the people, people who love the city. Here’s Veronica Nehera, she’s a chef, and she’s lived here all her life.

Veronica Nehera: I love Mexico. I love the people. They care about each other. That’s what I love most. 

[alarm clock]

[sounds of standing up and footsteps]

Narrator 2 (Jennifer): Get up. Brush your teeth. Go on your way.

It’s a nice day and you like to see the sunshine. You get on the minibus to work. There’s traffic again. Ugh, no surprise. You watch as the hills crawl past. Mosaics of houses painted more colors than you have names for. Sprawling communities, interweaving transport systems, vendors lining the streets. Twenty-one million people in a living, evolving city, full of culture, full of history, full of life.

[lively music]

A place of chaotic harmony. You lean your head against the window and admire the view. 

Joey: This piece was produced by Terrascope Radio, a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed in collaboration with MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies. Terrascope is a freshman learning community focused on solving complex environmental issues and is a part of the Office of Experiential Learning. 

We would like to thank all the people we spoke with during our time in Mexico City. We also give thanks to Professor David McGee for leading the Terrascope program and fall class; to Emily Martin for planning many of the logistics of our trip; to Laura Bergman, our undergraduate teaching fellow, for keeping us in line; to Libby Hsu and Dr. Luisa Pinto, who skillfully helped us translate throughout the trip; and to Ari Epstein, the instructor of Terrascope Radio, for guiding us through the making of our piece. 

I’m Joey Noszek.

Anthony: I’m Anthony Cheng.

Arón: I’m Arón Ricardo Perez-Lopez.

Janice: I’m Janice Shiu.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Wu.

Eden: I’m Eden Bensaid.

Sherry: I’m Sherry Zhou.

Asia: I’m Asia Chapman.

Rayna: I’m Rayna Higuchi.

Mei: I’m Mei Wu.

Jacob: I’m Jacob Miske.

Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Lu.

Joey: And we are Terrascope Radio 2017.
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May 2016 Rebeldes: A Journey through New Mexican Agriculture

Photo credit: Ari Epstein

Photo credit: Ari Epstein

An engaging and informative look at farmers in a desert landscape, and at how their individual farming styles reflect their personal values. Explores modern industrial farming, centuries-old collective water-distribution organizations, ancient Navajo corn customs and semi-urban organic farming.

First aired: May 11th, 2016 ·
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May 2015 Power From The People


A warm, personal story about the lives and challenges of energy workers “behind the light switch,” especially those who operate Pacific Gas and Electric’s solar, hydro and nuclear power plants.

First aired: Spring Semester, 2015 ·
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