The Flow of Time: Rivers, Geography and the Next Hundred Centuries

A talk with Jonathon Keats, Alex Loftus (King’s College London), Nora Buletti (University of Fribourg). Moderated by Oli Stratford (Disegno)
Rivers are natural calendars, marking the passage of time as they meander, but their rate of meandering is contingent on climate change. Artist and philosopher Jonathon Keats proposes to re-calibrate clocks and calendars based on the long-term meandering of rivers, grounding time in the environmental conditions of our planet. This epic new project, planned for the Ticino River, is merely the latest of Keats’s many immersive encounters with deep time, which have also involved the construction of cameras taking hundred- and thousand-year exposures of the American landscape. Keats will discuss the Calendar of the Meander and his other time-based environmental artworks with river sociologist Nora Buletti and the critical geographer Dr. Alex Loftus, in a public conversation moderated by Disegno editor-in-chief Oli Stratford.
Event details
Tuesday, 20th of November, 18h15-19h45
King’s College, Bush House, South East Wing, Room 1.05

Address: South East Wing, Bush House, 300, Strand, London WC2R 1AE

Using documentaries for research and public engagement

Lilongwe Water Works? A research documentary on the dynamics of water provisioning and access in informal settlements

Dr. Maria Rusca – a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow and Lecturer in Water and Development at our Geography Department at King’s College London – is the Principal Investigator of “Investigating Natural, Historical and Institutional Transformations in Cities (INHAbIT Cities)”, aiming at improving understandings of the dynamics of basic service provision in urban and suburban spaces in the global South. The project particularly investigates the relation between urban infrastructures, distribution of everyday risks and uneven conditions of access to water in Maputo (Mozambique) and Lilongwe (Malawi).

Maria believes that strong connection and commitment to a cause comes with inspiring stories; she has thus decided to engage with larger non-academic audiences and policy makers by disseminating INHAbIT’s research findings through a short documentary.  “Lilongwe Water Works?” tells the stories of women accessing or providing water where the formal utility provides water through public water kiosks (see picture).

In addition to using her documentary intitled “Lilongwe Water Works?” as part of the education curriculum of Water and Development at King’s College London, and Water Governance at IHE Delft, Maria returned to Lilongwe a few weeks ago to share her findings at various events she organised.

The documentary was projected at the Water User Association in one of the informal settlements, where some community members, water users, and contributors to the documentary were able to discover and discuss the final output; the same was done in an informal settlement’s school; another projection was done at the Lingadzi Hotel, with water stakeholders (the World Bank, UNICEF, the Ministry of Water, Lilongwe Water Board, the Economic Justice Network, Lilongwe City Council, WASAMA) and journalists (Zodiac, Reuters, AFP, Free Expression institute, Times Group, Capital Radio, Nyasa Times).

The most impressive moment for Maria was to see how the documentary was able to raise debates and even confrontations in ways she had never experienced before. During these debates, concerns were raised about the role of Water Users Associations: while on the one hand they are considered to be useful in ensuring water supply, they are also causing water to low-income areas to become increasingly expensive and often unaffordable (see referenced papers at the end of the post).

To watch the documentary:


DIRECTOR: Maria Rusca

YEAR: 2017

SYNOPSIS: The water utility in Lilongwe, capital city of Malawi, serves people living in low-income neighbourhoods through a system of water kiosks. The kiosks work like shops, which opening hours when people can go buy 20 litre buckets of water. This documentary tells the stories of the women and men that access water through the kiosks and those who are involved in running them. Their stories reveal both the successes and the failures of providing water through kiosks and call us to question whether this system can ensure the human right to water to the residents of Lilongwe’s peripheries and to others elsewhere in the world.

PRODUCER: Whales That Fly and Hyphen Media

FUNDING: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 656738


For related peer-reviewed papers:

  1. Tiwale S., Rusca M., Zwarteveen M., The power of pipes: mapping urban water inequities through the material properties of networked water infrastructures. The case of Lilongwe, Malawi, Water Alternatives, Water Alternatives 11(2): 314-335.
  2. Rusca, M., Schwartz K., Hadzovic, L., Ahlers R., (2015), Adapting Generic Models through Bricolage: Elite Capture of Water Users Associations in Peri-urban Lilongwe, European Journal of Development Research, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 777–792. Doi:
  1. Rusca M., Alda Vidal C., Hordijk M., Kral N., Bathing without water, and other stories of everyday hygiene practices and risk perception in urban low-income areas: the case of Lilongwe, Malawi, Environment and Urbanisation, doi:
  2. Alda Vidal C., Kooy M., Rusca M., (2018) Mapping operation and maintenance: an everyday urbanism analysis of inequalities within piped water supply in Lilongwe, Malawi,Urban Geography, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp. 104- 121 doi:
  3. Rusca M. and Schwartz K., (2018) The Paradox of Cost Recovery in Heterogeneous Municipal Water Supply Systems: Ensuring Inclusiveness or Exacerbating Inequalities?Habitat International, doi:
  4. Sarpong Boakye-Ansah A., Ferrero G., Rusca M and van der Zaag P., (2016) Inequalities in microbial contamination of drinking water, supplies in urban areas: the case of Lilongwe, Malawi, Journal of Water and Health, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp. 851-863, doi: 10.2166/wh.2016.258 

For related blogs:

Are we paying enough attention to water quality?

Bathing without water

Stephen Lintner visits the Department of Geography

Stephen Lintner joins the Department of Geography at King’s College London in 2017 for his third year as a Visiting Professor. Professor Lintner has over 40 years of worldwide experience in environment, infrastructure and water resources management. At King’s, he focuses on three complementary themes: policies and procedures for management of environmental and social impacts and risks; assessment and management of transboundary freshwater, coastal and marine resources; and evaluation of historical processes of human modification of environmental systems. Lintner previously held leadership roles at the World Bank; his most recent position, from 2000 to 2014, was as Senior Technical Adviser with global responsibilities. Earlier he was the Bank’s Adviser for Freshwater, Coastal and Marine Resources Management. Prior to joining the World Bank, Lintner served in the United States Agency for International Development, United States Geological Survey and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. He is the former President of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA). He holds a Ph.D. in Geography and Environmental Engineering from Johns Hopkins University (USA).

In addition to giving a number of research seminars and lectures, Professor Lintner has made time to meet individually with students and staff during his visit. Anyone who would like to meet with Stephen is invited to sign up for free online ( Master’s and PhD students interested in careers in international development, finance, and environmental policy are especially encouraged to make an appointment.

Event flyer for Stephen Linter's seminar on 8 February

Stephen will be speaking at the Human Geography Seminar this week, sharing his insight into international development financing. Please join us from 4:30pm in the Pyramid Room. A drinks and nibbles reception will follow.

International Development Financing: Current Priorities, Policies & Practices
Stephen Lintner, Visiting Professor
Wednesday 8 February 2017
4:30pm, Pyramid Room

This seminar will consider international development financing from the perspective of the multilateral development banks (MDBs) that are among the principal sources of such financing. The current priorities, policies and practices of these institutions will be reviewed, with a focus on environmental and social issues. The seminar will also discuss how the MDBs are structured and governed, how they develop their policies and strategies, and how the programs and projects they fund are prepared and implemented. Stakeholder engagement, and the processes used by the MDBs to engage a range of participants, including people affected by projects, will be addressed as well.

Research Partner Dar Si Hmad wins UNFCCC Award

Dar Si Hmad for Development, Education and Culture is a local non-governmental organisation using innovative technologies to promote sustainable livelihoods in Southwest Morocco. PhD researcher Becca Farnum partners with Dar Si Hmad as part of her doctoral research on environmental peacebuilding, exploring how the group uses a pioneering fog-harvesting project to cultivate intercultural exchange through their Ethnographic Field School.

Dar Si Hmad operates fog nets in the cloudy desert of MoroccoThis week, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change announced the winners of their Momentum for Change Award. From their press release:

Thirteen game-changing initiatives from around the world were announced today as winners of the UNFCCC’s Momentum for Change climate change award.

Winning activities include:

  • A Google-led project that could catalyse the rooftop solar market for millions of people across the United States
  • An ingenious net that harvests fog from the air to provide drinking water for people on the edge of Morocco’s Sahara Desert
  • North America’s first revenue-neutral tax that puts a price on carbon pollution
  • A project that has established the first women-specific standard to measure and monetize women’s empowerment benefits of climate action

Other winners include the EU’s largest crowdfunding platform for community solar projects and a project in Malaysia initiated by Ericsson that uses sensors to provide near real-time information to restore dwindling mangrove plantations.

Further winners are a company that provides solar systems to homes and businesses in rural Tanzania through an innovative financial package and a Swedish city that became the first in the world to issue green bonds, enabling it to borrow money for investments that benefit the environment.

The Momentum for Change initiative is spearheaded by the UN Climate Change secretariat to shine a light on some of the most innovative, scalable and replicable examples of what people are doing to address climate change. Today’s announcement is part of wider efforts to mobilize action and ambition as national governments work toward implementing the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The Momentum for Change Lighthouse Activities underline how climate action and sustainable development is building at all levels of society from country-wide initiatives to ones in communities, by companies and within cities world-wide,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said. “By showcasing these remarkable examples of creativity and transformational change, along with the extraordinary people behind them, we can inspire everyone to be an accelerator towards the kind of future we all want and need.”

Each of the 13 winning activities touches on one of Momentum for Change’s three focus areas: Women for Results, Financing for Climate Friendly Investment and ICT Solutions. All 13 will be showcased at a series of special events during the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco (7 November to 18 November 2016).

The 2016 Lighthouse Activities were selected by an international advisory panel as part of the secretariat’s Momentum for Change initiative, which operates in partnership with the World Economic Forum Global Project on Climate Change and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative.

PhD researcher Becca Farnum celebrates with women in Dar Si Hmad's fog villages

Behaviour Change Workshop with WaterWise

On 12 September 2016, King’s Water and water efficiency NGO Waterwise jointly ran a workshop on behaviour change and its potential for use in the UK water sector. The aims of the workshop were:

  • To present the findings of Hazel Lewis’s recent MSc Water: Science and Governance dissertation research on the perceived barriers to the use of behaviour change techniques to participants and other interested parties
  • To provoke discussion on the potential for behaviour change in the UK water sector
  • To provide a complete discussion of both the challenges and solutions of behaviour change for the UK water sector


Seminar attendees and panel at the WaterWise workshop Continue reading

King’s Water member Rob Francis to speak on Family-Worklife Balance

As part of the London Doctoral Training Programme Conference to be held at King’s College London 1-2 September, there will be an open panel discussion on “Getting the Family-Worklife Balance right in academia”. King’s Water staff member Rob Francis will join other researchers at various stages in their academic career to discuss the struggles, challenges and advice they have for successfully managing family and work-life balance. The afternoon will include the opportunity to ask them questions.

All are welcome to join us in the Edmond J Safra Theatre of King’s Strand Campus from 2:40-3:30pm on 2 September.


  • Prof. Viviene Jones, UCL
    Viv Jones  has had a non-standard career in academia.  She started her career as a Research Scientist after being awarded her PhD in 1986 and had twins in 1995.  Viv returned to  UCL after 6 months of maternity leave and then worked part-time (70%) from 1995-2010 in a Research role until she was awarded a full-time academic contract at UCL.  Since then she has been promoted to Professor of Environmental Change.
  • Dr Rob Francis, King’s Water, King’s College London
    Rob Francis is Senior Lecturer in Ecology at King’s College London. He joined King’s as a lecturer before completing his PhD and has been here for 12 years. Rob is married with two kids, aged 7 and 2. As a non-Londoner with no family support and a long commute, he is familiar with the challenges involved in successfully maintaining an academic career in London whilst also having a decent family life.
  • Dr Elizabeth Boakes, UCL
    Lizzie Boakes is a research scientist at the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research CBER, UCL. She has three children and has been a postdoc working part time (0.4 fte) for many years.
  • Alex Steele, PhD student, UCL
    Alex Steele is a memberpart of cohort 1 of the London NERC DTP. He is a vulcanologist and met his wife, Maria, while doing fieldwork in Ecuador between 2009 and 2014, before he started his PhD. They have a young child, Elisa, born in August 2013. Elisa has dual nationality (British and Ecuadorian), and is now three years old. Maria and Elisa moved to London to live with Alex when he  began his PhD in September 2014. They spend the majority of the time in the UK but typically return to Ecuador for two months each year to visit family.

King’s Water at RGS

The 2016 Annual International Conference will be held at the Royal Geographical Society in London from Tuesday 30 August to Friday 2 September 2016. The theme for AC2016 is nexus thinking, an approach that has attracted a surge of interest in the last five years among academics, policy-makers and third sector organizations. The aim of nexus thinking is to address the interdependencies, tensions and trade-offs between different environmental and social domains – an approach to which geographers might feel an inherent attraction. Rather than seeing energy, food and water resources as separate systems, for example, nexus thinking focuses on their interconnections, favouring an integrated approach that moves beyond national, sectoral, policy and disciplinary silos to identify more efficient, equitable and sustainable use of scarce resources.

Given how strongly rooted the idea of ‘nexus’ is in water management and scholarship, it isn’t suprising that a number of King’s Water members will be taking part. Join King’s Water to consider transboundary water governance, gendered hydro-violence, hydro-social interactions, environmental education, hydro-diplomacy, and other issues.


Seeking and contesting environmental security in a complex world: Knowledge, agency and governance implications

Naho Mirumachi, King’s Water Lead, is convening a session on Wednesday exploring environmental security. Environmental security remains a key feature of global concerns to stability and development, as demonstrated in the 2016 Global Risks Report by the World Economic Forum highlighting effects of climate change, water and energy crises. While the concept of environmental security is not new, nowadays it concerns a wide range of climate, energy, food, water, biodiversity and migration issues, in addition to the interlinked impacts between and across them. At the same time, the referent object of security is multiple and less evident in contrast to statist interpretations of environmental security. Recent scholarship on environmental security calls for a better examination of global economic structures and human-biophysical processes of the anthropocene that mediate causes and implications of insecurities (Dalby 2013). Understanding environmental security thus encompasses a critical examination of the politics determining complex and multiple threats. What kinds of thresholds and trigger points are identified to establish risks and threats? What kinds of knowledge are used to explain causes of threats? How are inter-connected risks across sectors such as climate and migration, water-food-energy understood? The politics of environmental security sheds light on the normative assumptions and framing of threats. Actors strategize and challenge logics of security, which may not necessarily distribute the benefits and burdens of dealing with threats equally across society. Drawing on a range of environmental contexts, the panel will discuss the language and knowledge of securitising the environment; actors and referent objects of security; implications of governing for environmental security on socio-economic and ecological processes. Presenters include King’s Water’s own Amiera Sawas.


The Water-Gender-Violence Nexus in Disasters and Daily Lives

King’s Water is sponsoring a session examining the complexity of the links between water, gender, and violence is growing in research. Tragic cases in India of young women raped and murdered while searching for a spot to defecate drew the eyes of the world to the strong – and often horrific – ties between water for sanitation and hygiene and gender-based violence. Poor infrastructure creates opportunities for violence. Both temporary and permanent circumstances of limited resources and poor infrastructure can affect the way people interact with each other, both positively and negatively. The potential of water – in its abundance, scarcity, use, misuse, or related infrastructure – to be a driver of conflict and violence can only be understood via credible, extensive, and ground level research in a multiplicity of circumstances. In this session, cases from around the world will be used to question whether and how water is a gendered resource, how gendered dimensions plays out in water access and distribution, how discourses of water help shape gender-based violence, and how water might be leveraged as a tool against gender-based violence.

The session will be chaired by PhD researcher Becca Farnum. King’s Water member Amiera Sawas will share her work on the gendered dimensions of water for sanitation and hygiene in urban settings. Becca’s research partner Dar Si Hmad will speak about a fog-harvesting project in Southwest Morocco tackling the symbolic violence of gendered water roles.


Hydrosocial or socio-hydro? Cross-disciplinary discussions on Deltas as nexus of social, technical and physical systems

UNESCO-IHE, one of King’s Water’s institutional partners, will be leading a session investigating the physical and social elements of water systems. The last decade has seen the exploration across disciplines, but especially by physical and human geographers, of water as simultaneously social and natural. In the age of the Anthropocene, natural scientists refer to socio-hydrology, while social scientists refer to the hydrosocial. They both agree – but with important differences – on needing to understand the interplay between human and natural systems. This session aims to understand the differences, similarities, and implications of the hydro-social-technical paradigms in use. Waterscapes where this issue is particularly pertinent are deltas. Deltas are special places, where the relationships between humans and nature is often strongly, and increasingly, mediated by technology. Traditions of ‘living with water’, with modest interventions, are in many places superseded by modernity’s aim to control: dikes prevent flooding, groins and embankments fix the river channels’ position, polders enable micro-water level management for the benefit of agriculture. The conceptualisation of delta systems should therefore give due recognition to the constituting role of technology. This session aims to explore this relationship of technology with social and natural processes within the context of delta, theoretically and/or empirically. We want to compare the reasons for, and implications of, the choice of paradigm for research and policy on deltas. Our purpose is not to judge competing claims but to start a meaningful conversation. We want to assess possibilities and constraints in the light of pragmatic questions: what can we learn when we employ these different approaches, what different rationales for action do they suggest, what scope exists for collaboration? We also ask to what extent paradigms are incommensurable, and under what circumstances they may not be. Our tentative proposal is that ‘narrative’ is the common ground that can be a shared endeavour amongst disparate paradigms. We therefore also look for speculative papers that propose how such engagement around narratives may be implemented in research.

King’s Water members David Demeritt and Maria Paula Escobar Tello will be presenting their work on “Forecasting in the nexus: looping effects and the impacts of ‘impact-based’ warnings”. King’s Water Lead Naho Mirumachi will reflect on “Hydrosocial or socio-hydro? Cross-disciplinary discussions”.


Environmental Peacebuilding: The Peace-Environment-Conflict Nexus

“Environmental peacebuilding” is an emerging concept recognising the potential of the natural environment to play a role in post-conflict rebuilding and peaceful relations between communities in conflict. This session will examine the logic of the environmental peacebuilding rationale and the links between peace, the natural environment, and conflict. The focus will be on critically considering when and where peacebuilding does and should happen, the unique position occupied by nature in these processes, and the need to examine both the negative and positive consequences of environmental concerns. Examining theoretical debates and including practitioner and activist voices, the session will consider whether environmental scarcity inevitably leads to conflict; what the goal of environmental peacebuilding is and should be; how the natural environment might be understood as a tool, actor, and/or stakeholder in peacebuilding processes; and how various actors at multiple scales might learn from successful examples of environmental peacebuilding?

King’s Water PhD researcher Becca Farnum will be profiling her research partners in a unique session bringing together activists from three Middle Eastern countries to discuss the ways in which they use water for local peacebuilding and international diplomacy. Part 1 will review the theoretical basis of environmental peacebuilding, with contributions from a range of disciplines. Part 2 will be Becca’s first public presentation of the data she has collected from six months of fieldwork in Morocco, Kuwait, and Lebanon and will include a variety of local voices.


The Environment-Education-Empowerment Nexus

PhD student Becca Farnum is convening a session on The Environment-Education-Empowerment Nexus. Part I will explore the premise that student engagement as researchers in Education-Practitioner Partnerships can enable students to be a key nexus in the practical application of geography both at the time, through their activity in partnership, and in the future, through the pedagogic development and networking skills they gain through partnership. We will share perspectives on opportunities and challenges offered by a range of stakeholders including students, professional practitioners and academic researchers across the breadth of the discipline. Part II will take a closer look at the concept and pedagogy of “environmental learning”. Environmental learning may refer to education about the environment and natural ecosystems, education taking place outdoors surrounded by nature, or ecologically focused instruction with sustainability as an aim. This session seeks to understand the interplays between the natural environment, teaching and learning, and empowerment – for teachers, students, economies, communities, and nature itself. The session will make use of both local case study and pedagogical theory to consider these relationships. The two sessions will focus primarily on practical case studies, with the chair facilitating discussion between and across the case studies to highlight emerging themes. A discussion with the audience will help to raise further questions and issues in order to inform conclusions about the efficacy and potential of environmental learning for education, empowerment, and sustainability.

The session will include a paper from King’s Water PhD researcher Anna Lavell about her work with Intrepid Explorers. Two of Becca Farnum’s research partners will also be presenting. The Kuwait Dive Team will share their work with youth in an extensive Mobile Beach Clean-Up project. Dar Si Hmad, a local NGO from Morocco, will present their Water School, a model of rural sustainability education.


Mapping for Water

A recent initiative at King’s brings students and staff together to build open source maps. Post-doc Faith Taylor says:

A mapathon is an event where members of the public meet up and work together to add data to Open Street Map, which is an open source, freely available GIS map dataset for the world. Open Street Map (OSM) is a bit like Google maps, but anyone can add, edit and download the data, which makes it an excellent resource for countries like Malawi. OSM data is generally created by the large community of volunteers who digitise points, lines and polygons from satellite imagery and old maps. In places where there is a good internet connection and lots of people interested in crowdsourced mapping, the maps are generally quite complete. But in places like Karonga, where access to computers and internet may be more of a challenge, the maps tend to be less complete.

To overcome this problem of “missing maps”, groups such as the Humanitarian Open Streetmap team and The Missing Maps Project organise drives to focus on improving the maps for specific areas. This has been incredibly successful before, during and after hazard events to help locals and responders understand what the infrastructure and landscape of an area looks like before and after a disaster.

The @KCLMapathons group meets biweekly to build OpenStreetMaps together.

This Friday at 1pm in the Pyramid Room, the team will work on improving the map of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The map will help to improve the delivery of urban services such as solid waste removal and access to clean water.

More information about the area and the mapping task is available here.

No experience or special skills are necessary to help out – just come along with a laptop and a mouse to contribute and hear more about how mapping from afar can help increase water access around the world!

King’s Water celebrates World Oceans Day

Happy World Oceans Day! On the 8th of June each year, the Ocean Project partners with the United Nations for the official celebration of our planet’s biggest waters.
King’s Water is proud to examine water in all its forms…fresh and brine, physical and social, frozen and liquid, clean and dirty. Recently, PhD Researcher Becca Farnum released her first book, a celebration of the marine conservation work done in the Gulf by the Kuwait Dive Team. The graphic designer for that project was colleague Grace Young, a Marshall Scholar and oceans engineer at Oxford University. Today in celebration of World Oceans Day, King’s Water shares Grace’s account of her 22-day sail across the Atlantic this winter.

A photo of a McGregor sailboat on the ocean with a colourful sunset

I’m sitting in the St. Thomas airport waiting for my flight to Heathrow. Toting a hiking bag stuffed with salt-encrusted clothes, I search for an outlet to charge my laptop; it’s been dead nearly three weeks. My hair is still wet from this morning’s dip in the ocean.

“You get off a boat?” asked the man ahead of me at check-in. I wondered what gave it away. Was it my freckled skin and I-don’t-care ponytail? My callouses? My travel partner joking about peeing in a bucket?

As I sit down to write this blog entry, I find reflecting upon the last 22 days somewhat overwhelming. In that time we, eight friends, sailed a 65’ boat across the Atlantic. Every aspect of my daily routine changed dramatically and abruptly during those days at sea. I was pleasantly surprised that, apart from friends and family, I didn’t miss land much. It feels as if a year, or several, passed in those days. It was an adventure of a lifetime.

For me the journey started about three weeks before we left port. While out in London at a celebration, I received the following text from a friend:

Hey, crazy idea and no doubt you already have plans… but want to cross the Atlantic Ocean? Dec 18 – Jan 5?

The friend is the founder of a non-profit called SailFuture. The reason behind the last minute request is a rather long story…check it out here. We chatted details, but all I could say initially was “still trying to work out logistics; haven’t forgotten.” Finally it worked out, in large part to the encouragement of my friend Elizabeth (“Bizzy”) Walton, and the support of other friends and family.

A few things I learned from my sail:

People make the boat.

We had no Internet or contact with the “outside” world during our crossing, apart from a satellite connection reserved for emergencies. This meant that all of us onboard couldn’t hide behind our phones or laptops; we had to hang out old-school style. It took perhaps two or three days to shake the habit of wanting to check my phone for updates. It took us no time to get to know each other. I guess hours and hours of uninterrupted conversation does that to people. If there was ever a lull during a night shift we’d play “would you rather” or go around telling stories. When our phones were all dead and unchangeable, we sang songs totally out of key.

We got on like a house on fire. Thank goodness, because this would be a very different crossing if not. Maybe the circumstances forced us to get along, but I don’t think so. We actually did all get along. Mike, the one who brought us all together, must’ve had a feeling we all would.

People dynamics have the potential to make all things sour when you’re living confined in close quarters 24/7, everyone out of their comfort zone in some way or another. If one person is in a funk it quickly infects the group.

There was only one day that I felt we got anywhere close to the “Mutiny” scene in Life Aquatic. I won’t go into the details, as they are mundane and have lost context; but we got over it by listening to each other and saying nice things before the evening meal.

There’s an unspoken rule for me when living in any form of inescapable tight quarters:  If a person has headphones on or has retreated to a spot on the boat away from others, leave them alone. On land if you saw your friend sitting at an edge of a café you’d of course approach them even if only for a quick hello. On the boat there is zero private space. There are times when you feel superfluous, question your usefulness, and become insecure.  Other times when you, rather vainly, think what would this boat do without me?

We’ve plenty of sea stories. I kept a detailed daily journal. Nearly all of it I wouldn’t publish. It’s personal, but also needs a good deal of context. Maybe I’m just a bad storyteller, but chatting with friends I quickly realize only a few of the stories really click, even if they weren’t the most telling for me. Here’s one of them:

On Boxing Day, I woke up in the middle of the night from what I thought was me falling asleep at the helm. I tried adjusting the wheel to the heel of the boat that I felt, but it was pitch black. We’re use to sailing in just moonlight, a small light illuminating our heading on the compass. I woke up the crewmember sleeping next to me. “Turn on the compass and windex lights! I can’t see anything! The boat isn’t responding!” They were confused. I was dreaming, of course, a very vivid dream. I laughed, relieved, once I realised I was in my bunk. Two days later another helmsman had the same dream. It became a recurring phenomenon.


Trusting the captain matters.

I really trusted our Captain, Mike. One of the first things you see below deck is a handwritten sign reading “No Bullshit” taped in the galley. When I agreed to join the crossing, I trusted him not only to lead us safely across the Atlantic, but also to pull together a competent crew with good group dynamic. Here’s a story from our fourth day at sea that confirmed our faith in the Captain; it’s taken from an excerpt of my journal entry three days before Christmas.

Sometime close to midnight, Maddie and I were below deck chopping greens when we heard a jibe. A jibe is when the boom swinging violently across the boat due to a change in the wind direction along the sail. Jeremy, one of our most competent helmsmen, was at the wheel, so it can’t have been caused by ineptitude or carelessness. Something was wrong.

Mike bolted out of bed at the noise. Yep, something is very wrong. He knows the boat, all the noises it can make. He’s not taking for granted that the boat will sustain that kind of force.

Both our captains and a 1st mate are on deck, plus one of our crew who is violently seasick. Maddie and I remain below, waiting to be asked to do something if help is needed. Space is so small up deck that especially in borderline-chaotic moments like this excessive crew can be in the way.

Staying calmly below, just waiting, gives me a particular feeling I’m not use to dealing with. Part of me feels that I, as a sailor and mechanical engineer by training, should be handier on deck. I want to be up there, rain hitting me sidewise, climbing the mast, pulling in lines, shouting orders, whatever it takes. Another part of me realizes that while I may have more basic sailing knowledge than some of our crew with different experiences initially, I’m not as physically strong (able to winch in heavy winds or yank the oft-stuck halyard cleat in heavy winds) as our male crewmembers. I’m not the first person to come into mind when the Captain needs someone to furl in the Genny, for example. Is part of this because the high-adrenaline “survival mode” situations are bringing out some of the guys’ instincts to protect women? There’s room for a psychology experiment here (hello PhD prospect!). It’s just our first few days at sea, however. Roles will pan out. Everyone on this boat is a team player, which means we will do whatever is best for the group to reach our objective. I’ve been cooking or taking care of the ill the last few days because it’s been best for the group and I want us to reach our goal.

As Maddie and I sit, braced between the navigation station desk and galley cabinets listening to orders cast above, Biz emerges from the main sleeping cabin, extremely seasick. She stumbles awkwardly to the floor and crouches in front of the stove, clinging to a bucket. She can’t keep even water (or Dramamine) down. I’m concerned she’ll soon be severely dehydrated. We try getting water with hydration salts to her.

Above us, the three men shout across the length of the boat. From below, it’s unclear what the problem is, but things seem tense. My body wants to worry, but my brain remains even-keel, the only way it knows, “Grace Under Pressure.” Whatever, I still feel useless.

Mike starts singing “It’s a great day to be alive // I know the sun’s still shining’ when I close my eyes // There’s some hard times in the neighborhood // But why can’t everyday be just this good.” He’s either a lunatic or a thoughtful leader who has just goofily but purposefully quelled the unspoken anxieties of all his crew. It takes a few more days at sea to confirm the latter.

As he darts below deck he takes a moment to tell Bizzy something sweet, like he’s never seen someone look so gorgeous while puking. It’s stupid but it makes her smile and she needed that. I know that not only is she dealing with crushing seasickness, but she’s also wondering if it was really a good idea for her to be here. She’s been the bravest of any of us, signing up for this adventure knowing only me and not having spent more than half a day on a sailboat. This is one of the times when I appreciate how aware Mike is of everything on the boat, mechanically and emotionally.

Everyone is awake at this point; although I get the feeling that at best only the three on deck know what’s going on. Maddie and I are docile below, but we still need our brains turned on. For example, one of the guys passes down the fishing rod for us to secure. The quickest thing would be to wedge the rod between the table and bunk in the middle cabin, but we think one step ahead and find some less convenient place where no one in a hurry will accidentally step on it. This is one of those instances where you can’t be lazy and always have to be thinking ahead, of what might go wrong.

As you learn in all aspects of life, but maybe more so in engineering, when there’s one problem, it’s easier than ever for things to snowball into a multi-layer problem.

Maddie, taking a meta perspective, identifies issues on deck that we will remedy tomorrow. For example, those on deck might not realize it but they are wasting time rummaging around for headlamps only to find one of the headlamps has a dead battery. Tomorrow we’ll organise the lamps and batteries in a reliable place. We also keep life vests and safety lines in a reliable location. We make a list, but must leave it for tomorrow.

Even though our adrenaline is spiked, Maddie and I sleep. Plenty of crew is available. Someone will need to be rested tomorrow when the others aren’t. This is one of those times when my ability to completely ignore my surroundings and fall asleep, no matter the noise or chaos, is more useful than annoying to my companions. Perhaps counter intuitively, by being able to sleep I feel useful finally. ​


You miss people.

Family and friends were the only things I genuinely missed about land. I especially missed my sister on her 18th birthday. She was playing squash for Team USA at the British Junior Open for squash (yes, she’s impressive) in England and I was supposed to be there. I wondered if she was going out for a drink since she’d be legal in the UK. I wondered how she was feeling about her game. I wondered if she was mad at me for missing her. Thinking more about it made me sad. 

The Wild West is an apt metaphor.

I also reflected on the high seas from a geopolitics perspective, something related to my PhD work. Appropriately, the week before departing I attended a workshop on the high seas sponsored by the Global Ocean Commission at my college in Oxford. All the proposed suggestions had a very tangible meaning now that we were out here on the high seas.

Many have likened the high seas to the Wild West. It’s true that you can get away with anything out here. There’s no one around. It is lawless. Check out the New York Times’ fantastic expose on “Lawlessness on the High Seas”. On one side of the debate, there is the beautiful dream that the high seas could be a place, indeed an opportunity, for international peace and cooperation. But humans largely need a sense of ownership to act responsibility. I’m no exception. I remember sharing a bedroom with my sister when we were younger. She’s messy and I’m neat. There was a line in the room, dividing messy from neat. I never cleaned her side although she wouldn’t mind it. I’m also thinking of the high seas in terms of the game we often played on nightshifts. Would you rather have to respond to a radio call from a government every time you entered a country’s territorial waters, and perhaps even pay a toll for sailing across their waters? Or, would you rather have total freedom, but allow the ocean decline from overexploitation? What’s the balance? This issue begs for a longer discussion in a separate piece.


Being surrounded is surreal.

The thing I most wondered about before the trip was, how would it feel to be completely surrounded by nothing but ocean? For 22 days we saw nothing but ocean to all edges of the horizon. There was no reference for size or location. You could easily go crazy. If you didn’t trust the compass or maps you’d wonder, have we moved at all? Never have I seen so many consecutive sunsets and sunrises. Every day the sky put on a different show, between sunset, moonrise, and sunrise. Bizzy, a keen eye, saw nearly three-dozen shooting stars during the voyage.

My six-hour flight back to England over the same ocean was surreal. I’ll never look out the window during one of those crossings and view that ocean the same way.

Headshot of oceanographer Grace YoungAnd to close things off, a Q&A discussion with Grace:​

When did you leave?
We departed the afternoon of December 19th, 2015 from Las Palmas, Canary Islands. We originally planned to leave December 18th, but a faulty pulley on our jib took us back to the marina for the night.

How long did it take?
It took us 22 days to cross the Atlantic. We originally anticipated a 14-day journey, but some mechanical hiccups took us slightly off course and slowed our progress. More on this later.

Were there showers and toilets?
Showers no; toilets yes. We rinsed with ocean water. This is common among racing sailors and isn’t that bad really. Even if the boat’s proper showers had been functional, we wouldn’t have used them because we needed to conserve fresh water.

Who was on the boat?
We had eight crew, five guys and three girls. All of us were somehow acquainted with our Captain, Mike. On each shift, our roles sorted roughly into skipper, first mate, deckhand, and steward.

Were you scared?
No, check out this piece I’ve written about this question. I’d like to write a longer post on this question, which I get often and that I’ve noticed females get far more often than males regarding adventure. It’s like asking someone if they’re scared to take their driver’s exam… No, I’ve trained for the situation and know the range of things to expect.

Did you see other boats?
Yes; but not many. We saw about a dozen other vessels total during our 22-day crossing. Most were container ships. On Boxing Day we made contact with another sailboat over the radio. Nothing but clear blue ocean surrounded us during the vast majority of our journey.

What did you eat? How’d you cook?
Lots of pasta and sandwiches. Fresh veggies for the first week, or until things went bad. We had a gas stove aboard. Lesson learned: Even when rationing fresh water, don’t cook pasta in ocean water; it’s too salty. We also bought a leg of Parma ham that lasted two weeks. It got super creepy at night accidentally running into that hoof though, or watching the hoof sway with the boat.

What marine life did you encounter?
We had several dozen dolphins at a time follow our boat for about 10min on three different occasions. One of our helmsmen is certain he saw a whale on his shift as well. We spotted two sea turtles. Sometimes, even in the middle of the ocean, we’d see a lone bird flying around. A pigeon landed on our deck our second day at sea. We saw flying fish dance out of the water, and even onto our deck, many days.

What was it like celebrating (insert: Christmas, birthday, New Year’s) in the middle of the ocean?
Fantastic. I missed family and friends, but we used our satellite phone to each make a short call home. We were blessed Christmas day with calm weather, so we could go for a swim. We had a great dinner too. On my birthday, the crew surprised me with a chocolate cake they managed to make in the oven. On New Year’s Eve you could say we all enjoyed a sunset cruise with some of our closest friends. It was great!

What was harder, living underwater for 15 days or sailing across the Atlantic for 22 days?
I know it’s the boring answer, but the answer is simply that they’re different. Both had unique challenges. Living in Aquarius prepared me to live in close quarters for an extended period of time. For Aquarius though, by the end of our intense training I felt comfortable dealing with almost any imaginable emergency situation. We had two full-time habitat technicians living with us plus a full topside support crew, many of whom had run similar missions dozens of times in the past. This meant I could just focus on science work with other researchers. On this sailing trip, however, we were all doing this for the first time. We had to figure things out as they came up, and, moreover, figure them out without the aid of Internet or anything that wasn’t already on the boat.

Did you have any bad weather?
Not really. We were very fortunate with weather. We didn’t encounter any storms or rough patches that we couldn’t handle. We had some spouts of rain, but nothing major. The strongest winds we encountered were about 30 knots.

What surprised you?
The songs stuck in your head when you leave land stay stuck in your head. I couldn’t shake Adele’s “Hello.”

Would you do it again? 

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King’s Water researcher publishes book on environmental volunteerism

King’s Water PhD Researcher Becca Farnum has just released her first book, an exploration of the Kuwait Dive Team’s efforts on marine conservation, environmental education, and conservation volunteerism in the Gulf.

Becca has released the book for sale in the United States in conjunction with World Water Day.

A year and a half ago, Becca was invited to the Gulf for her first visit as a guest of the Kuwait Dive Team, a volunteer organisation working to preserve and protect the marine environment of the Gulf. She was then just beginning her doctoral work at King’s. In October 2014, Becca participated in the Dive Team’s activities for a week in order to learn more about their operations and, at their request, wrote a book in English sharing their story. After hearing about the Team’s efforts to leverage their expertise in salvaging and coral reef care for international relations, Becca decided to use their ‘diving diplomacy’ activities as the basis for one of her three ethnographic case studies in her dissertation on environmental peacebuilding in the Middle East.

You can learn more about Becca’s research with the Dive Team by watching her interview on Kuwait National TV during her fieldwork in January and December 2016.

Defending the Deep: Guardians of the Sea” is now available for order on Amazon. Though Becca has written and presented academically about the Team, this book is intended as a fun, accessible exploration of the beautiful world that resides under the sea, and the many ways we as humans can help – or hurt – that world.

The book is currently available for order from Amazon in the US and Canada. UK sales will be run through All proceeds from book sales will go to the work of the Kuwait Dive Team. However, it is not necessary to buy a book to read the story. You can download a free copy from the King’s College London Research Portal here.


On Christmas Day in 1991, the Government of Kuwait formally accepted an offer from a group of young scuba divers to help remove underwater debris left by the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait. What began as a patriotic act of post-conflict rebuilding grew into a national movement for marine conservation and environmental volunteering. This is the strory of those volunteers, young Kuwaitis dedicated to preserving and protecting the rich resources and natural beauty offered by our planet’s water. Today, the organisation holds hundreds of beach clean-ups each year, salvages thousands of tons of boats and fishing nets from Kuwait Bay, and creates a safe haven for millions of animals in the Gulf. This book invites you to take a journey with the Environmental Voluntary Foundation. It is a story of life and death, capture and rescue, wreck and restoration. It is a story meant to show you a different Middle East than you know. It is the story of the Kuwait Dive Team.