Speech by the Prince of Orange at the World Water Day

22 maart 2013

The Hague, 22 March 2013

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, friends,

This is where I started. In this very conference center  Exactly thirteen years ago. TheNetherlands  proudly hosted the second World Water Forum, and I had the honor to chair it. And it brings back some wonderful memories.

For me personally, this was the start of an amazing journey through the global water arena. Today, on World Water Day, back inThe Haguetogether, I would like to take this opportunity to synchronize watches with you. To see how far we have travelled in these past 13 years. Impressively far, I can tell you. But also, to take stock of what is left to do,  and to agree on some homework for the coming years. Because the journey is far from over.

For those of you who were there, the first thing that may come to mind when remembering the second world water forum, may well be those scantily clad protesters at the opening ceremony. And my humble attempts to convince them to simply join our discussions - preferably with a few more clothes on.

Of course it was good publicity. But much more important is how this Forum managed to put the importance of water center stage. The second World water Forum smartly linked  water to poverty, the environment, culture and social-economic development. And it defined the key challenges:

  • Meeting basic water needs
  • Securing food supply
  • Protecting ecosystems
  • Sharing water resources
  • Managing risks
  • Valuing water and governing water wisely

Quite a full plate! And this was only the beginning. Half a year later, at the Millennium Summit, the world community agreed on the Millennium Development Goals - the MDGs - , thanks to the great leadership of U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. The importance of water for poverty reduction was now fully recognized. And MDG 7c clearly spelt out the aim of ensuring 'access to safe drinking water', as a central element of this great endeavor.

Two  years later,  I was present at the Johannesburg WSSD Summit. Once more, the importance of water for sustainable development was underscored. And crucially, 'access to basic sanitation' was added to the original water-MDG.

No doubt, water and sanitation were now firmly on the global agenda!

For Kofi Annan, the MDGs were his priority of priorities. And as early as 2004, he realized that more efforts would be needed to foster the water and sanitation goals. He was convinced that poverty eradication and sustainable development could never be achieved without solutions to global water problems. More action and more focus were needed.

This is why he established the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, UNSGAB, under the wise and able leadership of Ryutaro Hashimoto. To advise the Secretary General, and to galvanize action globally, on water and sanitation. 

Sadly, Mr Hashimoto passed away within two years of his mandate, just after the drafting of the first Hashimoto Action Plan. This is when Kofi Annan stepped in and asked me to take over Hashimoto's torch. And this is how I found myself chairing this great, knowledgeable and motivated UNSGAB group at their 7th meeting inTunis.

I vividly remember my discussions with our then Prime Minister, how much of a workload this new job might entail. Probably two meetings a year, we thought. Well…

UNSGAB became a rollercoaster of meetings, activities and conferences. It is hard to believe how much energy and enthusiasm we encountered. At all levels, on all continents. And how much energy this gave us in return. I never looked back one moment.

We went to every corner of the UN system to make the voice of water and sanitation heard. And to promote synergies between all those whose mandate mattered to water. Economic development with UNDP, health with WHO, environment with UNEP, urban issues and informal settlements with UN-HABITAT, food with FAO, WMO, CSD, UNICEF, UNESCO, UN-water…

UNSGAB not being a donor,  we sought alliances with financial institutions such as the World Bank, and regional development banks in Africa, Asia, the Islamic World and theAmericas. And with private foundations such as those led by the Clintons and Bill and Melinda Gates. All of them have made water and sanitation essential elements of their programs.

And we spread the word. We spread the word meeting with the European and African Unions and the OECD. We spread the word in the World Water Fora inMexico,Istanbul, and  Marseille;  at the Water Weeks inStockholm,Singapore,TunisandAmsterdam. We spoke to interest groups, trade unions, parliamentarians, bankers, CEO's, all the way to the World Toilet Organization and to celebrities like Madonna and Bono. Some needed more convincing than others. But now they are all helping to spread the word.

People often ask me what the most meaningful meeting or moment was. For UNSGAB as a whole,  this would probably be the international year of sanitation in 2008. It was amazing to see how taboos can be overcome, if the underlying issues really matter to people. At a time when journalists in my own country were still questioning if the word sanitation really existed, leaders in Africavoluntarily chose to be photographed next to toilets, and problems and solutions were discussed openly. Nowadays, access to water and sanitation  are recognized as human rights. UN resolutions and even the UN Secretary General explicitly speak about (eradicating) open defecation. We all grew up. We all realized that sanitation should not be  a taboo, nor a laughing matter, but an issue central to health, dignity and development.

In this context, I vividly remember the African Union Summit in Sharm al Sheikh. It had taken us quite a lobby to get water and sanitation on their agenda, but the international year of sanitation had given us the pretext we needed. The meeting was politically charged, and there were some big and sometimes controversial personalities in the house. It was quite an experience to address them. But for the first time ever, 52 African heads of state and government spent a full afternoon on water and sanitation issues. The importance of the issue was underscored at the highest level. And the leaders gave new impetus to the African Ministerial Council on Water to take matters forward. The first of its kind in the world. And still alive and kicking.

On a more personal level, my best memories of the past period were always in the field. Speaking to the inhabitants of slums inNairobiorRio. Farmers inEthiopiaorMexico. The children of Atteridgeville inSouth Africa. Sanitation workers inIndia. The people for whom the MDGs were designed in the first place.

Apart from the impressive and sometimes humbling personal encounters with many of these people, such meetings confirmed time and again that what we were doing made sense. That water and sanitation are indeed crucial to their livelihoods. And that all these meetings in UN conference rooms - believe it or not - can indeed be instrumental in making real differences to their lives. These people have taught me so much.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is of course wonderful to conclude that water and sanitation have come to the political and public  agenda to stay. That Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, his deputy Jan Eliasson and many heads of UN-organizations have made water a top priority. That water and sanitation operators are increasingly reaching out to each other. That water has become an important topic at the World Economic Forum meetings around the world, and a priority for companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever and Nestle. For, as Nestle-CEO Peter Brabeck bravely put it:'If we cannot fix the water issue, we will not be able to give food or energy security'.

But are we actually getting somewhere? Are we realizing our Millennium goals? To what extent did we manage to make the world a bit better in those 13 years since 2000? Let's have a look at the hard numbers and face the facts.   

The fact is that well over one billion people, who had no access to drinking water in 2000, have now been connected. One billion people! This is an amazing success! The UN has formally declared that the Millennium Goal for drinking water has been obtained, four years ahead of schedule. I would recommend anyone cynical about the UN or development goals, to stop by and speak to any of these one billion people.

But we have to be critical. Because in these same 13 years, our world population has grown, by roughly the same number of one billion. Progress is unevenly spread. And the MDG only aimed at halving the number of those unserved, so another half remains. And, crucially, not all those connections may deliver safe drinking water. In fact, many of them still make people sick.

The sobering fact is that today 783 million people have no access to an improved source of water. And at least two billion people are drinking water of doubtful quality or worse.

Looking at sanitation, almost 950 million people have obtained improved sanitation facilities since 2000. But with 2,5 billion people without such facilities, we are very far away from our original goal. And if we include the need for sewage and waste water treatment - crucial for preventive healthcare - we are looking at 4 billion people currently unserved.

So where do we go from here? Billions continue to live in poverty, without safe drinking water, without proper sanitation. The world population grows, the climate changes. We see more flooding, and more droughts.

This is why the journey continues, and why our work is far from over. This is why the SG has decided to extend UNSGABs mandate to 2015, when the world community intends to agree on a new development agenda.

In these discussions, UNSGAB will continue to spread the word, with three simple and straightforward priorities:

  • First and foremost, we need to work towards universal access to sustainable sanitation and to drinking water that is really safe;
  • Second, we need a wastewater revolution. Preventing pollution and increasing wastewater management and reuse.
  • Third, we need to use our water efficiently and wisely, through integrated water resources management.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In these processes, we should never forget why and for whom we are doing this. That is why I am thinking of George.

George is fromKenya. He is a WASH field worker just south ofNairobi. I met him last November on a field visit, and we discussed the Millennium Development Goals. My question if these abstract aims had any relevance for his daily work, were followed by a heartfelt 'yes'. According to George, the MDGs were the best thing ever to come out of the UN system.

If he had only one wish, George said, it would be for concrete goals for water and sanitation to continue after 2015. Concrete goals with concrete targets and a transparent system to verify the results.

 So the work should continue. To serve the unserved. And to keep all parties accountable. That is Georges' wish.  And his wish is my command.

Today, on World Water Day 2013, 7.500 fellow citizens of whom 5.000 children will die of inadequate water and sanitation facilities. Millions of African girls and women will walk for miles to find water for their families. And another species of aquatic life will disappear. This is why our work should continue!

Ladies and gentlemen,

My time as Chair of UNSGAB is due to end shortly, as new responsibilities have dawned. It has been a privilege to serve the water community. The water community has given me endless opportunities to learn and grow, for which I am eternally grateful. You have helped me make who I am, to form me for my future endeavors.

But our mission is far from over. My role will change, but my passion won't. I can't think of any better farewell present than your unabated strive towards our aim of water and sanitation for all.

Please rest assured that in your work, you will always find me on your side. You haven't seen the last of me yet!