Ms Jessica Fell is taking the academic world by storm!

05 Dec 2022
Ms jessica Fell
05 Dec 2022

Ms Jessica Fell is taking the academic world by storm!

We sat down with Ms Jessica Fell, a PhD candidate at UCT’s Department of Civil Engineering and the Future Water Institute, who recently received the NRF Research Excellence Award for Next Generation Researchers.

Ms Fell has worked as a Research Assistant and Junior Researcher at UCT’s Future Water Institute and spent time as a student at an engineering consultancy firm. She was a 2020 GreenMatter Water Research Commission Water Fellow and is the National Marketing Lead for the 2022-2024 South African Young Water Professionals National Committee. She has co-authored four peer-reviewed journal articles and one book chapter, made seven oral conference presentations, co-authored three technical research reports, and written two popular articles.

Could you briefly describe the research you are undertaking and how this is particularly relevant in a South African setting?

 A Water Sensitive City with Blue-Green Infrastructure (wetlands, rivers, parks etc.) can enhance liveability, resilience and sustainability. Many cities in South Africa, including my study area of Cape Town, are currently expanding Blue-Green Infrastructure as it can provide multiple benefits, from stormwater management to increased amenities.

Cape Town has 850 monofunctional stormwater ponds, which offer a way to achieve a Water Sensitive City by being repurposed to provide multi-functional benefits such as managed aquifer recharge and enhanced biodiversity. When planning for multi-functional infrastructure, it is important to determine which benefits are most important and to try to maximise different benefits given the spatial context and local needs.

My PhD research uses a mixed analysis, comprising a Multi-Criteria Analysis paired with GIS, to identify strategic ‘priority’ stormwater ponds that offer high multi-functional potential. This potential corresponds to seven planning priorities which represent commonly cited benefits of a Water Sensitive City:

  1. Increasing access to blue-green space
  2. Enhancing biodiversity
  3. Incorporating water quality limitations
  4. Increasing water re-use through Managed Aquifer Recharge
  5. Enhancing cultural and heritage associations with water systems
  6. Reducing the Urban Heat Island effect
  7. Community services connection with water systems.

My research provides a transferrable, flexible, participatory and strategic approach to planning multi-functional Blue-Green Infrastructure for a Water Sensitive City transition, particularly for South African cities.

Where did your passion for this field of research stem from?

I’ve always been interested in environmental and sustainability issues. During my BSc honours, I developed a particular interest in water and how wide-reaching the field is and realised this is something I could build an exciting and impactful career in. My subsequent work with the Future Water Institute, which conducts interdisciplinary research, also showed me the breadth of the sector from designing infrastructure to governance and policy.

Considering our city’s history with water accessibility, how do you see the path forward for Cape Town as a Water Sensitive City?

I think Water Sensitive Cities speak to significant concerns around securing a diversified and resilient water supply. Still, they also go beyond taps and toilets to how water can support and enhance human well-being. Equitable access to water services has to be at the top of the agenda for South Africa. A Water Sensitive Cities framework also extends to equitable access to recreation at beautiful and safe green spaces, for example.

There is great work going on around diversifying Cape Town’s water supply, so there is not a single reliance on surface water stored outside of the city in large dams, but it is complex work. Using the city as a water supply catchment with recycled stormwater, wastewater, and groundwater is a great vision, but the institutional arrangements and skill sets are tricky. My PhD and the Future Water Institute’s  research on Water Sensitive Cities hopes to impact on how we operationalise the concept for South African cities.


You seem to have achieved so much in your early career. Your accolades include; co-authoring four peer-reviewed journal articles, one book chapter, making seven oral conference presentations, co-authoring three technical research reports, and writing two popular articles. Do you manage to spare some time for your hobbies, and if so, what would those be?

I am creative and enjoy hobbies that allow me to be creative - I love painting, dancing and fashion!

Do you have any advice for those aspiring to enter the civil engineering, particularly the water-focused discipline?

I have an environmental science background up to my masters degree and entered civil engineering through my PhD. I think civil engineering provides a wonderful foundation to build a career in water. It gives you the technical basis to understand water systems and use innovative approaches to respond to current challenges. Moreover, water-related services play a significant role in improving lives, particularly the lives of womxn and girls, and civil engineering allows you to make an impact to this end.

I would especially encourage womxn to enter civil engineering and the STEM fields as the need for them and their scope for impact is enormous. Having womxn represented in water has played an influential role for me, and I hope I can do the same for other womxn – the sector will be its strongest when it’s rooted in equality and diversity!