Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN, United States

Keynote Address by HRH Willem-Alexander, the Prince of Orange, the Netherlands, Chair of UNSGAB

Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters

I am delighted to share the podium with His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince of Japan.  As our Honorary President, you have brought your keen interest of water issues to our discussions.  Our ties to Japan are strong and I applaud your country’s long-standing commitment to improving water management around the globe.

It is also a pleasure to be with Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.  We know that the demands on your time and attention are endless.  Hosting this Session and your presence here today show your dedication to minimizing the pain, loss and suffering caused by water related disasters.

I am equally happy to share the podium with my fellow Board member, Dr. Han Seung-soo.  Two years ago, we were graciously hosted in Seoul and we learned about Dr. Han’s work spearheading ambitious river restoration projects to build Korea’s resilience in the face of potential water-related disasters.  Dr. Han, you combine an international commitment with a real understanding of challenges on the ground, and you are part of both the water community and the disaster community, making you an excellent advocate in our efforts to reduce the impact caused by water-related disasters. 

Many in this room have lived through water-related disasters.  We will hear from some of you who lived through the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami just two years ago.  We will also learn about the flooding in Thailand,which took lives and ruined infrastructure.  And I’m sure all of us remember the South East Asia Tsunami which crashed onto the shores of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Maledives, Seychelles, even as far as eastern Africa in 2004.  We have Indonesian representatives here who will tell us about rebuilding efforts. 

Every water-related disaster—whether too much water like a tsunami or a flood or a typhoon or too little like a drought—is harrowing.  Imagine torrents of water entering your home, turning your entire life upside down in their wake.  Families shattered and your life’s work washed away in a matter of minutes.  A drought, though less sudden, can be just as devastating.  People are driven to the brink of sanity by droughts that never seem to end. Right now, the United States is experiencing one of the worst droughts in history.  Fields are parched, businesses are shutting down and food prices are rising.  And this is in a country that benefits from sophisticated irrigation schemes to stave off the worst effects of the drought.  Today, in most of Africa and much of the developing world, farmers continue to rely on rainfed agriculture making them vulnerable to our fickle climate.   

Is it possible to end all of the suffering inflicted by water-related disasters?  Of course not.  Indeed, with climate change finding its expression in the water cycle, it is a certainty that we will see even more water-related disasters in the coming years.  An overall warming trend world-wide and more dramatic climatic shifts means stronger storms, longer droughts and more coastal flooding.  It is crucial, however, that we apply the precautionary principle in our approach to disasters.  It is a social responsibility to try to reduce the public’s exposure to harm. 

When UNSGAB was drafting the Hashimoto Action Plan in 2006 to help achieve the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goal targets, it was clear to us that one water-related disaster can wash away in a moment years of progress, compromising communities’ ability to reach their development objectives.  So we included in that first Hashimoto Action Plan the urgent need to reduce the suffering caused by water-related disasters, both natural and manmade. We hoped to unify political will around global actions.

That is still clear today and our meeting continues that effort.  We are here to share stories, learn from our experiences and build momentum and galvanize political commitment for a stronger global response to water-related disasters. 

The first Hashimoto Action Plan also called for the High-Level Expert Panel on Water and Disaster, a group chaired by Dr. Han Seung-Soo.  I encourage all of you to revisit its recommendations formulated in 2009 – they are practical, to-the-point and still highly relevant.  For example, they stress that disaster risk reduction must be integral to climate change adaption strategies.   Adapting to climate change is about building resiliency.  Resilient ecosystems, economic and social systems can recover more quickly and sustainably from external shocks.

Just last year in Rio, countries gathered twenty years after the historic Earth Summit to recommit to a sustainable future.  The Future We Want outcome dedicates four paragraphs to disaster risk reduction.  They stress the interlinkages among disaster risk reduction and long term development planning along with the importance of early warning systems.  Countries are also called on to reaffirm their commitment to the Hyogo Framework for Action – implementing this framework would build exactly the resiliency we need.  Despite being close to 12 years old, the Hyogo Framework remains clearly relevant today – I urge the international community to keep this Framework at the center resiliency building efforts.

When a water-related disaster strikes, people need care urgently.  Perhaps their most basic need is for clean water and sanitary toilets for we know how quickly diseases like cholera and diarrhea can spread without proper sanitation and hygiene.  That is why a central objective of the Hashimoto Action Plan was the quick provision of clean water and sanitation after water-related disasters through coordinated responses from national and international organizations.  While we can not prevent water-related disasters, we can try to make sure those recovering from them at least have decent toilets and clean water.

The continued need in so many parts of the world for clean water and sanitation is an acute development challenge.  A staggering 2.5 billion continue to lack proper sanitation. Of all the MDGs, the Sanitation MDG target lags furthest behind. For safe drinking water the official numbers are less shocking: 783 million living each day without ready access to clean drinking water.  But we know that the number is a lot higher since so far we  monitor only access to improved sources not water quality. 

I have worked for many years to draw attention to these fundamental challenges.  For the last seven years as Chair of Mr. Ban Ki Moon’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. 

Secretary-General, it has been an honor to support you and the UN Family. Though my personal mandate is coming to an end, the Board remains vital and in fact we have just prepared Hashimoto Action Plan III which will guide the Board’s work through 2015. 

Members will continue to make an urgent push for sanitation with the Sanitation Drive to 2015, a campaign initiated by UNSGAB to continue the spirit and vitality of the International Year of Sanitation in 2008.  And while we make many global commitments, without sustainable financing arrangements our lofty goals will not be met.  This is why a major component of the Board’s efforts through 2015 will be working with countries on innovative financing strategies for water, sanitation and wastewater services.  The water-food-energy nexus is also a priority. And of course, building the global commitment and political will for disaster risk reduction is a central part of the renewed Action Plan. 

Your Imperial Highness, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, friends

That is why our next action plan includes working with partners to make the case for strong water and sanitation targets in the post 2015 development framework.   First, we need objectives and strategies to achieve universal access to sanitation and to drinking water that is really safe.  It is time to make the human right to sanitation and drinking water a reality. Second, to avoid contaminating our scare water resources, and given that only a fraction of wastewater is treated in many countries, we need global objectives to increase wastewater management and re-use as well as pollution prevention.  Thirdly, to ensure we have a reliable supply of clean water in the pipes, we must address the bigger picture by improving integrated water resources management and water-use efficiency. 

We are meeting in a building that was impacted not very long ago by a water-related disaster.  Hurricane Sandy caused the East River to rise and flood the United Nations Headquarters.  The entire complex was closed for a whole week.  Major sections of the Big Apple – one of the most prosperous and vibrant cities in the world – were brought to a halt.  For days, the lower part of the island was dark and Manhattanites experienced what is like to live without running water. I have heard first-hand from residents in high- rises who needed to lug water up 20 or 30 flights of stairs. Having to physically fetch and carry water for a families needs, even for a few days, was a life changing experience.  This physically exhausting job continues to be a daily task for millions of women and children world-wide.

Others were not so lucky. The Jersey shore, Staten Island, Red Hook, Breezy Point and the Rockaways were devastated and I understand many of you were able to visit these communities early this week.  New York and New Jersey are slowly rebuilding and this is in one of the richest countries in the world.  When a water-related disaster hits a vulnerable city or community, it can take decades to rebuild.  Solidarity among nations, to learn, anticipate and prepare for disaster is the only rational and moral way forward.  That is why we are here today.  I thank you for participating and I look forward to our deliberations.