Jessica Wilson

28 September 2018 | Duration: 01:01:49


Jessica Wilson is a writer, facilitator and advisor who worked for more than 20 years in the field of community-driven sustainable development – particularly focusing on water rights, water governance and climate change. Having a BSc in Chemistry from UCT and a Masters in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts, Jessica spent seven years as a researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria. In 1998 she moved to the NGO sector and from 1999 to 2018 was a Senior Programme Manager at Environmental Monitoring Group in Cape Town. Her long experience of interfacing between communities struggling with water access and all levels of government, academia and the policy worlds meant that during the 2017-18 water crisis she was in a position both to identify systemic breakdowns and to accelerate dialogue and understanding between these groups.

Key points

  • During crisis middle class households had to wake up to the fact that regardless of wealth they couldn’t use as much water as they wanted to; had to install home storage systems
  • Experiences were very different in the suburbs and the townships
  • Experience of many people in poorer parts of Cape Town was that at a household level there’s no change: restrictions initially were more lax than they were already living under; a lot of the CoCT communication was targeted at people who were using much more water – correct, but the City seemed to have two strategies for dealing with its citizens
  • The Day Zero announcement had an equalising effect
  • It is frightening that community views are so invisible in the public discourse
  • The crisis has not led to any fundamental change in how city government sees its citizens
  • When approached by journalists during the crisis there was often a search for blame; tried to argue that crisis was caused by many different factors and that there were deeper, more fundamental questions at stake around resilience, climate change, the nature of our response to the crisis and what our responses say about us as Capetonians
  • Water demand management devices went into poor parts of CT, and wealthy parts got their first devices only in August 2017; it’s only when dam levels became extremely low that serious efforts were made to enforce restrictions in wealthy households
  • Pricing water in an unequal society is very problematic; not convinced it’s possible to find a tariff system that’s fair, given the income and wealth disparities in a city like CT; current pricing system entrenches inequalities; sharing water equally would be interesting but you can’t rely on price to do that and this would require a different financing model
  • Water pricing decisions are political decisions; for example, over the last eight or nine years the CoCT has made the choice to get more money from people who are using less water, to recover the cost at the lower end of that scale
  • Information on water tariffs and pricing should be provided by the CoCT in a readable way, which is not currently the case; it is important that these should be transparent and that the choices and political decisions underpinning tariffs and pricing should be understood and be in the public debate



Her work at Environmental Monitoring Group for 18 years until January 2018; ran a programme on water and climate change; working with communities in and around CT on issues of water within the city; has kept close track of CoCT’s water management strategies; starting to question the view that water is there to be managed for humans; wondering whether there’s another way of looking at it and understanding how we relate to water and how we store and distribute it


How middle class households faced the drought; had to wake up to the fact that no matter how rich they were they couldn’t use as much water as they wanted to, so they had to install home storage systems; how much water is now stored in households rather than in dams; wonder whether the city government is thinking about this as a storage option; the city itself can be seen as a catchment that can augment the supply; but this challenges all the historical notions of pricing and keeping water public; the state can’t give up responsibility for managing a public resource, but they can build on this innovation and diversification of water; non-potable home needs can be met through household water collection


Would there be a way of seeing and responding differently to drought if we understood that we were part of a broader ecological and climatic system, that it was not something happening to us but we were part of it? The meta-narrative that the drought was happening to us; during the crisis restriction levels became more severe and households were limited to 87 litres of water per day (until end of January 2018), but 140,000 households in CT with restricting water metres have been living under those restrictions for a long time; “I think there’s an important conversation to have around who gets to name things about scarcity and lack of water and so on”


Experiences were very different in the suburbs and the townships; “it took us I think maybe longer than it should have as an NGO active in the water sector to start talking about and thinking about and organising around the drought, because the people who are essentially our constituency, our networks and friends were like ‘what drought,’ you know, ‘you’re telling me there are restrictions, well, they’re still more lax than what we’re living under’ so the experience of many people in poorer parts of Cape Town was that at a household level there’s no change: they don’t have big gardens, they don’t have cars to clean, they don’t have swimming pools to top up, and … a lot of the communication, information was targeted, you know, as I think it probably should be, to people who were using a lot more water … there was very little visible information that I can remember in Khayelitsha, and certainly people that we worked with were quite confused about the drought and what was it and was it real and how was it going to affect them and so on … it revealed that the City has two strategies in a way for how it sees its residents … and they’re quite polarised in some ways … I think the drought highlighted something that’s been apparent for many years, which is a deep lack of trust between people who live in Cape Town and the City that runs them, that runs us … it took a while for people to feel that we’re in this together”


The equalising effect of the Day Zero announcement; “somehow four million people not having water in their taps just feels terrifying”; in December 2017 EMG put together a guide to the drought, that was updated in January 2018 after the announcement of Day Zero; EMG also organised meetings to bring people together in conversations that tried to deepen our understanding of the drought in its broader sense; frightening that community views are so invisible in the public discourse; “for all this talk and hype about the drought, you know, there’s a whole long-term stuff around how water is managed in Cape Town, and how it could be a catalyst for equalising the city rather than entrenching class divisions, which is what we’ve seen – my interpretation of the City strategy over the last ten years”


“I don’t think there’s been any fundamental change in how the City sees its residents. I mean I think even in the drought there was no seeking out of views outside of expertise, engineers, communication specialists possibly, political views … [there was] unbelievable outpouring of neighbourhood care; I didn’t see any reflection of that back from the City; I didn’t hear anything from the kind of institutions that real live people lived in the city and wanted to help each other … it’s a real obstacle to resilience and sustainability … So I don’t know to what extent the City has rethought how it understands water but I don’t think it’s rethought how it understands citizens”


EMG’s voice was not in the forefront during the crisis; the space was swamped by opinion-makers and views; no one was really interested in long-term work; when she was approached by journalists during the crisis there was often a search for blame: “‘whose fault is this?’ … I tried to argue, which was not very successful, that blame wasn’t really the question, that there was a whole lot of factors coming together to create this ‘perfect drought’ and … that there are actually much more fundamentally deeper questions at stake … questions of resilience, you know, the really serious projections around climate change, which are deeply frightening, so it’s almost like a practice round, what did the drought say about how we organise together, do we bring in the military, or do we rely on ourselves as collective social beings with goodwill, you know, what are these responses and what do they say about us as Capetonians?”


Augmentation options; rainwater harvesting; alien vegetation clearing; water demand management; “what we’ve seen over the last seven or eight years, I guess, is a water demand management strategy by the City that first targets households that are using water that they cannot pay for”; initially into households with high debt; they’ve seen bills of over R100,000 owing for water; leaks got fixed, demand management devices installed, debt scrapped; “so the demand management which is linked to water conservation hasn’t been to say you know let’s see which households are using water for swimming pools or their gardens or water that’s maybe not necessary given that we don’t have that much water and let’s target them; it’s been targeted at leaks … but then it’s, as I say, been targeted at homes where people … have high debts and they are not paying for water; and that creates quite a skewed experience of water at a household level for residents in the city; and where initially it was going into highly indebted households it would then go into neighbourhoods, so neighbourhoods which might become indebted or which are not high-income areas would all get the device … so essentially it’s gone into poor parts of Cape Town, and wealthy parts got their first device in August last year [2017] as an actual water management device, to cut their hedonistic consumption, as opposed to cut their debt; … it leads into this idea that water and money are interchangeable, that somehow it’s a commodity … so it’s only when the dam levels got really pretty scarily low that serious effort was made to enforce restrictions in wealthy households”


Pricing and tariffs; three aims for tariffs: 1) need to get enough revenue to pay for provision; 2) everyone has to get basic minimum amount (free or affordable); 3) to discourage wasteful use: a step tariff system, with high tariffs for large quantities of water; “and it’s tricky because these things are in contradiction, so if you price the high ones too high people will use less water and you’ll get less revenue … but they’re making what I would argue are largely political decisions, so while they’re trying to balance their books with these three objectives they’re also making choices; and the choices that the CoCT has made over the last eight or nine years has been to flatten that tariff curve … so essentially the financial strategy has been to get more money from … people who are using less water, to recover the cost at the lower end of that scale”; indigent category created: certain households get the first 10.5 kilolitres for free; the idea of pricing water in an unequal society is very problematic; “the income disparity or the wealth disparity between Capetonians means I’m not convinced it’s possible to find a tariff system that is fair … so relying on pricing as your tool for managing how much water people use is really problematic … once you start actually rationing water and you say we’ve only got this much and everyone can have exactly the same amount, it’s a much fairer system … I think one of Cape Town’s biggest challenges around resilience and everything is to integrate the city and to make it less unequal, and water can go a long way to that because it’s very symbolic of class … so if you entrench within your pricing system something that restricts people to a certain amount of water you’re also entrenching a kind of lifestyle or a kind of level of scarcity in a home that is not the case in other homes, and that experience is quite visceral … so I do think that a kind of public rethinking of water and to … could we share water equally across the city would be really interesting, but you can’t rely on price to do that, you can’t rely on tariffs to do that, and so you have to think of a different way of financing your water if that’s what you’re going to implement”; issues around classification as indigent: humiliating process to get yourself classified as poor; fixed cost / flat rate that now comes with your bill regardless of water use


Water budget is terrifying even for somebody who is numerate; information on tariffs and pricing is not provided in a readable way; it’s critical to mediate financial knowledge; “somehow we need to find ways of articulating where the decisions are being made within budgets and tariffs, and what values those represent”; “it’s basically a market-based economy with a few nice exceptions, and I don’t believe that that’s … is going to work as we deal with scarce resources … environmental goods and services for aeons have been treated as infinite essentially and maybe this kind of standard or traditional or classical conventional economics works in such situations, but I don’t believe it works when we’re at the edges of scarcity … so all of these tools that are used in economics don’t make sense, you know, they don’t make sense, and I think it’s possible to show people who live in Cape Town who care about water why they don’t make sense, I don’t see why that is so difficult”


Personal experience during the drought; became much more aware of the many different forms of water there are in a home during the drought: turning water into a tapestry; “I really feel we need to rethink financing and pricing … this model that we have for financing and pricing water I don’t think is correct; I can see how, you know, it’s better than ones we’ve had and there are certain parts that are good because I do think it’s important to charge, you know, for water so that people have some sense of … that they pay less if they use less and so on, but I really feel that should be in the public debate”; financing water is a political question; interrogating these different pricing and financing options is very important to long-term resilience; “incredible goodwill and kind of aliveness people have felt towards water … that feels to me like creativity unleashed and for that to die in a kind of bureaucratic process of like let’s get back to how things were I think will really be missing the aliveness that I think we need and going to need more and more as climate change unfolds and ecological disasters become more frequent; each person is going to need to be able to read the system much more quickly and respond individually and collectively to what’s going on”