After 13 years, no end in sight for Caribbean sargassum invasion

The content originally appeared on: The BVI Beacon

Schools evacuated due to toxic gas. Smelly tap water at home. Tourist operators and fishers struggling to stay in business. Job losses. Power outages affecting tens of thousands of people at a time. Dangerous health problems. Even lives lost.

Such crises were some of the consequences of sargassum in the islands of the Caribbean in 2023, and they have become common in the region since 2011 when massive blooms began inundating the shorelines in the spring and summer months.

On April 18, 2023, in Guadeloupe, the air-quality monitoring agency Gwad’Air advised vulnerable people to leave some areas because of toxic levels of gas produced by sargassum.

Six weeks later, about 600 miles to the northwest, sargassum blocked an intake pipe at an electricity plant at Punta Catalina in the Dominican Republic. One of the facility’s units was forced to temporarily shut down, and a 20-year-old diver named Elías Poling later drowned while trying to fix the problem.

A team removes sargassum at the facilities of the Punta Catalina Thermoelectric Power Plant in the Dominican Republic in 2023. (Photo: PUNTA CATALINA THERMOELECTRIC POWER PLANT)

In Jamaica, during the months of July and August, fishers found themselves struggling through one more season as floating sargassum blocked their small boats and diminished their catch.

“Sometimes, the boats can’t even come into the creek,” said Jamaican fisherman Richard Osbourne. “It blocks the whole channel.”

Here in the Virgin Islands, most of Virgin Gorda’s 4,000 residents had to deal with sporadic water shutoffs and odorous tap water for weeks after sargassum was sucked into their main desalination plant last August.

And in Puerto Rico, a highly unusual late-season influx inundated the beaches of the Aguadilla area for the first time, leaving residents like Christian Natal and many others out of work for a week when it shut down businesses including the jet ski rental company that employs him.

Christian Natal works at a water-vehicle rental company at the “Crash Boat” beach in the Puerto Rico municipality of Aguadilla. The business had to close for about a week last year due to the unusual arrival of sargassum to the northwest of Puerto Rico.(Photo: GABRIEL LÓPEZ ALBARRÁN THE BVI BEACON)

“Sometimes the small communities get left behind,” Dr. Thomas said. “Maybe not intentionally, but in small island developing states with limited resources, you have to prioritise. And perhaps other things — like building a new hospital and constructing new roads, new schools — might take precedence over developing a sargassum management plan.”

Partly as a result, sargassum responses can vary dramatically from island to island.

But in probing major influxes in six Caribbean countries and territories last year, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo found one constant: People are suffering.

Negligible investment from biggest polluters

As residents experience health and economic consequences, Caribbean leaders often complain about a shortage of money to deal with the crisis. Local funds, they note, are tied up with many competing priorities, including handling climate-related impacts like hurricanes, droughts and flooding.

They also say that the cost of the sargassum crisis should be shouldered in part by the larger countries mostly responsible for it, but that accessing international climate financing for the purpose is not easy.

A CPI review of projects funded by the Global Environment Facility and by members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development between 2000 and 2021 found out that of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on climate change projects in the world, less than $7 million went to address sargassum-related issues. About 89 percent of those funds, or $6 million, were spent in the Caribbean.

Non-independent islands

For many non-independent islands like the VI, the problem is compounded by a political status that renders them ineligible for most climate financing.

“We have no access to global funds: Resilience fund, the loss-and-damage fund,” said Health and Social Development Minister Vincent Wheatley, whose home overlooks the Handsome Bay desalination plant that was recently damaged by sargassum.

The sargassum that filled Handsome Bay, Virgin Gorda (shown above on Sept. 1, 2023) was sucked into the intake pipe of the island’s main desalination plant and caused damage that led to water shortages and cut-offs. (Photo: ANIKA CHRISTOPHER