Dr Guy Preston, winner of the 2014 Eco-Logic Lifetime Achievement Award, has a reputation as “someone who gets things done”. As head of Environmental Programmes in the Department of Environmental Affairs, he brings together environmentalism and social justice.

Dr Guy Preston’s office walls are decorated with maps highlighting the Working for Water, Working for Fire and Working for Wetlands programmes – his signature implementations in 1995 and now internationally lauded conservation programmes. Preston leads a team of 480 people, running 14 programmes that in the coming year will provide employment for 70 000 South Africans.

Humble beginnings

Starting out as a school teacher and then moving to head of research at the Environmental Evaluation Unit at the University of Cape Town, Preston joined government in 1995 as special advisor to then Water Affairs Minister Kader Asmal. He continued as special advisor under Ronnie Kasrils. During this period, Preston launched 52 environmental programmes, the most well-known being Working for Water.

He has played a key role in the implementation of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act on invasive alien species. Preston chaired the Global Invasive Species Programme, and drafted the African strategy on invasive alien species for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Despite all these accolades, Preston insists: “It’s not about me, it must be about outcomes.”


User Pays programme

The most successful outcome was the User Pays programme he implemented while at University of Cape Town, with the co-operation of the National Parks Board. User Pays was piloted at the Kruger National Park, and then replicated at Royal Natal National Park and other parks around South Africa.

The project focused on changing consumer behaviour relating to water and energy usage through changing fittings, more accurate metering, monitoring demand and pricing, and featured constant feedback and communication with users.

“The element of competition was interesting – this was a result of the informed billing,” he says. “The kids, especially, took to it in a remarkable way.”

Users managed a 76% decrease in water use, and a 60% decrease in energy use simply by modifying their behaviour. In the end, 96% of participants preferred the User Pays system. “This meant that people would be able to take the principles home with them, and they were ready for the tariffs that were implemented under Kadar Asmal,” he says.

It was Preston and his team’s grasp of the power of detailed billing and user communication and education, as well as his stance on the eradication of invasive alien plant species as an alternative to building dams, which caught Asmal’s attention in 1994, and resulted in a job as his special advisor.

Going national

Here began Preston’s work on the National Water Campaign. Preston underlines the strong social justice element that runs through his environmental work, and credits Asmal, a human rights lawyer, with creating this space – our water ministers subsequently, he says, have carried on the tradition.

Asmal was also a vocal opponent of the privatisation of water. “We will not privatise water,” he once wrote. “South Africa cannot afford that.” Asmal advocated a mixed economic system of socialism and capitalism for the provision of water for all. Preston’s shares this position.

Preston tasted success for the second time in Hermanus in 1997. The Greater Hermanus Water Conservation Programme (GHWCP) transformed water management in a way that was unparalleled in South Africa. “We introduced free basic water in Hermanus and a tariff system based on the User Pays model,” he says.

The GHWCP was based on a 12-point plan developed between the department and the greater Hermanus municipality. The per capita peak-demand for water was reduced by 32%, while revenue from water sales increased by more than 20%, despite significantly less water having being sold.

Most importantly, the tariffs were possibly the most socially just in the country; those who drove the marginal cost paid the marginal price. The result was affordable water for the poor. The GHWCP received the 1999 Impumelelo Award for Social Innovation, and has proven to be an international model of how to transform measures towards more equitable resource use.

His final signature project is Working for Water, a programme to combat the threat of alien invasive plants to water quality and quantity. According to a 2012 study published by Water SA, South Africa has over 200 invasive alien species, many near rivers and estuaries.

“Invasives are a huge threat to our water supply and currently use 4% of available water in our catchment areas,” says Preston. “If they are allowed to continue to grow, this will rise to 16%.”

Dealing with numbers

Latest statistics in 2013 showed that South Africa was losing an estimated R6.5 billion to invasive alien plants, the majority of the impact (R5.8 billion) being on water. The spread of invasive alien plants “results in native species loss, increased biomass and fire intensity, and consequent erosion as well as decreased river flows”, according to the 2012 study.

Besides preserving local biodiversity and reducing water loss Working for Water also answers South Africa’s urgent need for jobs by employing over 70 000 people.

The programme has been replicated across environmental sectors, including Working for Coasts, Working for Wetlands, Working for Fire and Working on Waste.

Preston’s peers credit his ability to explain complex things in logical and compelling ways, manage large teams of people, and his general modesty, high work ethic and efficiency for his success.

Despite all the accolades, Preston remains humble and maintains a good sense of humour. His modesty is underlined by a stoic optimism. “I think water conservation is a massive opportunity,” he says. “Water use is the single most cost effective means that money can be saved. It has to be a government priority.”

The full article appears in the February-March 2015, page 36. Photography by Frank Ellis