Speech delivered by the Prince of Orange

Zhengzhou, China, 18 October 2005

at the opening ceremony of the Yellow River Forum.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

There is no doubt that the last twelve months will go down in history as a time of terrible flooding. And not only because of the tsunami that devastated several countries around the Indian Ocean. This summer, Central Europe - from the Alps to the Black Sea - was hit by severe floods. Mumbai and it's surroundings were flooded by monsoon rains dumping up to 600 mm in 24 hours, almost a year's average in my country. Hurricanes ravaged the USA and Central America. East and South East Asia were hit when typhoon Damrey swept across China and Vietnam just a few weeks ago, also causing major flooding.

Since I left home: severe floods took place in the North East of the United States, the Pyrenees and in this country, where almost 2 million people had to be evacuated. One really has to read the papers well to even discover these facts; we seem to get used to such disasters quickly!

Events such as these make us humble, as they confront us with the forces of nature and the power of people to withstand them. Our awareness of the impact of climate change is growing. 2005 is turning out to be the warmest year recorded in history. The more we learn about this radical development, the more we realise that the tide must be turned. And the sense of urgency is growing, although we should also keep in mind that not all flooding is climate related; earthquakes, and therefore Tsunamis have always existed and always will re-occur.

The recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warns of an irreversible loss of biodiversity and natural resources. This UN report stresses in clear terms how important it is to find the balance on every front between the economy, the environment and social needs. It is the duty of the international water community to work even harder to create smart and safe water systems that will restore that balance.

Against this backdrop, I believe this Forum can send out a message of hope to the world. During the preparations for this visit, I was impressed by the advances the Chinese have made in water management. I feel a little like the first Dutchman to visit China. That was Dirck Gerritz Pompe in the year 1570. As a trader, Captain Pompe was impressed by all the commercial activity he witnessed in the port of Canton - now Guangzhou - and on the island of Macau. I am especially impressed by China's water policy, and not only for technical reasons. In the run-up to the recent UN summit, it was explicitly stated that China has a promising track record in its efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, especially on poverty reduction. As China continues to focus attention on modern water management, small farmers will see their income security improve.

Of course, this focus on water is not new. The story of China is the story of rivers; and none is as important as the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilisation. For thousands of years, the rhythm of this river has defined the lives of many, many people. Generations have lived through droughts and floods here. But they have also built dykes and laid complex irrigation systems, cultivated the land and fished the river's waters. For centuries, human beings respected the balance in their relationship with the river. It was usually a good friend, and occasionally a terrible enemy. But in the last hundred years, overwhelming population growth and economic development have distorted that balance. This is a universal problem as I saw again during recent visits to the arid zones of Tunisia and the water-rich plains of Vietnam.

That is why I value the efforts the Chinese government makes to restore the balance. Here I see two interesting examples. The first is remarkable for its practicality. A large international company did a market survey to determine the potential for washing machine sales in China. The report stated that the use of standard washing machines would lead to an increase in water consumption that would nearly drain the Yangtze River. That is a powerful image. And although hydrologists might question its accuracy, it prompted the Chinese government to take action. As a result, all washing machines sold in China must meet strict water efficiency standards. One in four of the world's washing machines is in a Chinese home, so you can imagine how many litres of precious water are being saved this way.

The second example speaks to the heart of this conference. In the mid-nineties, large parts of the lower reaches of the Yellow River regularly ran dry. Now the river flows all the way to the sea 365 days a year, due to the large-scale construction of water and sediment reservoirs. And these are just two of the many examples that show China takes water issues very seriously.

The foundation on which China is building its system of safe and sustainable water management is the Chinese water law of 2002. This law is clearly based on the principles of integrated water resource management. As patron of the Global Water Partnership, I am thankful that GWP China was able to assume an advisory role. And I consider the creation today of the partnership for the Yellow River the newest jewel in our crown. This partnership - the first for a river basin - is a unique tool that will enable the nine provinces of the Yellow River basin to work together. Again, I am proud of this achievement. And I hope others around China and the world will follow this good example.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have cause to be optimistic about the future of the Yellow River. Nevertheless, we are all here because there are still a lot of problems to be solved. The fact that so many people from so many countries and disciplines have come to Zhengzhou is proof of that. I won't even try to discuss each of these fields separately. But I think it is important for you to keep one thing in mind in the days to come. From whatever angle you approach the water issue, the measures we take now must not impose heavy burdens on our children and grandchildren. Clear commitments were made in this respect during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. So what I'm saying is probably not new to you. But some principles are so important, they cannot be repeated often enough. Not passing on problems to future generations is one of those principles.

Another principle that bears repeating is that IWRM is the ideal formula for maintaining a healthy balance between safety, human water consumption and the capacity of ecosystems. The basis of the integrated approach lies in the age-old principle that people should follow the rhythm of the river and not the other way round. We must stop choking our rivers and instead give them more room. In the end, constricting our waterways will become unaffordable, leads to unacceptable safety risks and shifts the problems downstream. Again, these aren't new insights. But I believe they should guide the work you do in the coming days; as technical specialists, administrators, environment experts, soil specialists, or in whatever capacity you are here.

With this, I do not want to imply that there is a universal strategy that can be applied everywhere at all times in precisely the same way. Every river has its own characteristics and therefore requires a tailored approach. As the muddiest river in the world, the Yellow River is a case in point. People have to adapt to its pattern of sedimentation as well as to the flow of its waters. The reservoirs that have already been created to contain them are an important first step towards improving safety downstream.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to conclude by expressing the importance of this, the second Yellow River Forum. I'm sure you'll agree that the key word for the coming days is 'cooperation'. As a representative of the Netherlands, 'cooperation' is a word that means a lot to me, especially here today. The Netherlands and China are very different in many ways, most obviously in size and population. But one thing we have in common is that 'living with water' has shaped our histories. It is therefore only logical for our countries to share their experiences and their knowledge about water. China can learn a lot from the Netherlands, but the Netherlands can also learn a lot from China.

Sino-Dutch cooperation on water management dates back to 1876, when the famous Dutch engineer Johannis de Rijke went to Shanghai to help make the Yangtze River more navigable. Today, cooperation between China and the Netherlands is focused on the Yellow River. Several concrete projects on flood forecasting and innovation in dyke management are in preparation. And both our countries stand to gain from these projects.

There is a joint project outside the Yellow River basin that illustrates just how important cooperation with China is for the Netherlands. The biggest lake in the Netherlands - the IJsselmeer - is a relatively shallow, enclosed arm of the North Sea. It is very difficult for us to measure wave heights and test the strength of the lake's dykes in extremely high winds. Such weather conditions simply don't occur very often. But of course we want to be prepared in case they do. So a joint Sino-Dutch project is taking measurements in Lake Taihu that will help us determine how safe the IJsselmeer is.

The success of such projects always depends on whether the two parties are willing to share their knowledge. In that respect the Netherlands is proud to host the capacity building programme of the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education. So far, about 160 Chinese water experts - most of them young people - have participated in the programme. Needless to say, this will further improve the exchange of knowledge, especially because the programme focuses on the water managers of tomorrow.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Sharing knowledge will be your main priority in the coming days. The Yellow River is the focus, but the world is watching. I am sure that you will all go home wiser then when you came here. I hope that this Yellow River Forum will also lead to many new, practical cooperative projects. But that shouldn't be too difficult, with so much knowledge and know-how in one place and with so many opportunities to inspire each other.

I wish you a very fruitful conference.

Thank you.