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Swamped By Toxic Seaweed, The French Antilles' Cry For Help

Since 2011, the Caribbean islands have been attacked by rafts of algae which give off a pungent odor as they decompose.

Sargassum on a beach on May, 11 at Le Robert in Martinique, French Antilles
Sargassum on a beach on May, 11 at Le Robert in Martinique, French Antilles
Patrick Roger

PETIT-BOURG — First, a stench catches you even before you can see the shoreline. Then a tide of red algae comes, which pours onto beaches, rocks, the mangrove. Coming from the deep and carried by marine currents, this algae is known as sargassum.

"This is no longer an emergency, it is a calamity," said the Minister of Ecological Transition and Solidarity, Nicolas Hulot, on his arrival in Petit-Bourg, Guadeloupe, where a hundred protesters from the local anti-sargassum collective were waiting. He was accompanied by the Minister of Deep Seas, Annick Girardin.

Since 2011, the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands have regularly been accosted by these rafts of algae, which can reach several thousand square meters and which give off nauseating smells when decomposing. But this year, the scale and duration of these algae blooms are unprecedented. Worse still, the problem could be prolonged.

"We are facing an exceptional phenomenon not simply because of its magnitude, but one which may increasingly repeat itself due to climate change," says Mr. Hulot.

"They have been there for six months," says Jocelyne Traventhal-Hatchi, spokesperson for the anti-sargassum coalition. "Six months that we've played host to H₂S and NH₃."

H₂S and NH₃: hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, two of the toxic gases identified in the fumes. However, depending on the nature of these sargassums, other toxic components may be active, such as arsenic, which increases fear within the community.

Government mobilization was late. Too late; plunging inhabitants into a sense of abandonment. There had been "a delay in action and a lack of coordination between actors, and the state is not exempt," Ms. Girardin said.

Welcome to Sargasso Land.

At each stop the ministers were met by a reception of residential committees, mostly wearing protective masks, eager to tell the reality of their daily lives for the last few weeks and months. The daily stench that the winds are not strong enough to sweep away, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, swollen eyes, irritated throat. Their testimonials which caused officials to close schools and transfer students away from the decomposing mounds of algae.

For the small islands of the Guadeloupe archipelago, whose economy is largely based on tourism, the consequences are even more catastrophic. Some of them, like Marie-Galante or Terre-de-Bas, were cut off for several days because the ships could not enter or leave the ports, which had been invaded by brown algae. The fishing boats are immobilized in the middle of a pestilential mud that corrodes and oxidizes everything, just as gas emissions blacken and degrade household appliances. The tourists have deserted; shops and restaurants are closing.

Clearing efforts are slow going with only a fraction of the algae having been cleared. The only town hall of Capesterre-de-Marie-Galante has already spent half a million euros. Nevertheless, even if the exchanges were sometimes fraught, this visit was welcomed as a testimony that the state, finally, cared for these territories "at the end of the world." "Welcome to Sargasso Land," Marlene Miraculeux-Bourgeois, the mayor of the town, said upon the arrival of the two ministers, recalling that, in seven years, no minister of ecology had moved to Marie-Galante. As they left citizens begged, "don't give up on us."

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Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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