Prof. Charles Breen, a member of the Monash team and Emeritus Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has been awarded South Africa’s National Wetland Award (Science and Research) for 2014. This illustrious, peer-adjudicated award reflects Charles’ life-time of dedication to not only the science of wetlands but also to the policies and practice informed by this science.
Over the last three decades the attention given to wetland research, conservation and protection in South Africa has grown considerably, as has the number of individuals involved in these endeavours. Charles was and remains one of the pioneers of this movement. First was the trans-disciplinary research which he led in the 1980s on the dynamics of the Pongolo floodplain wetland. Not only did this research yield excellent ecological insights, but it also addressed key management issues, including the importance of the wetland to the livelihoods of local people and the challenge of maintaining ecological flows which sustain the ecosystem. As important was the initiative which Charles began with immense foresight in the mid-1980s of taking wetlands (and wetland research findings) into the policy and planning domain at a provincial level. This ground-breaking work provided a solid foundation on which the province could build and from which other provinces and national initiatives could learn and draw inspiration.
Charles continued to pioneer initiatives focused on the wetland research-management interface through strong partnerships developed with the Water Research Commission and others. This included initiating and leading a project in the late 1990s to provide a sound scientific base for the management of priority wetlands. Next he contributed as a critical member of the research team producing the WRC Wetland Management Series, published in 2009 and in a WRC Wetland and Livelihoods project completed in 2014. He led the Kruger Park Rivers Research Programme and was instrumental in the development of the Consortium for Estuarine Research and Management. All these research initiatives have fundamentally impacted on the policy domain. That there is an entire chapter on estuaries in the national Integrated Coastal Management Act is testament to this.
His contribution has transcended research and science. During his academic career he has been entirely devoted to the mentorship and supervision of young water researchers and practitioners, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. The majority of these students were or are involved in water resource and wetland research and management. Many of them form the current leadership cadre in these fields and include the leader of the Monash team, Bimo Nkhata.
His current professional contacts which include, amongst others, UKZN, WRC, Monash South Africa, SANParks, Forestry South Africa, Copperbelt University, University of Namibia, the Mozambique government and the University of Montana are a testimony to his positive and continued influence. Well into his 70s, Charles continues to engage with passion, intellect and empathy. The public recognition from the wetland fraternity is well-deserved.