Speech by the Prince of Orange

Stockholm, Sweden, 21 August 2006

at the opening of the World Water Week 'Beyond the River',

Reaching out beyond the river: conquering the next level.

Excellencies, laureats, dear waterfriends,

Twelve years ago my father pointed me in the direction of water management. In his eyes, it was the most perfect preparation for my future task in life. Large parts of the Netherlands are below sea level, and so we have always had a special relationship with water. That, of course, was a factor. But there was more to it. To my father, water was the key to social, economic and ecological sustainability all over the world. So in his eyes, those who understand water understand life. Or, as W.H. Auden once put it so poetically: Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

I shall always be grateful to my father for his wise advice. For years now, I have considered it a privilege to play a role in the crucial field of water, and every day I learn something new. But there is one thing that my working visits have convinced me of, and that is that every situation calls for a tailor-made solution. Countries and regions differ from each other, geographically, economically and socially. They have different climates, and different cultural traditions. The deltas of Bangladesh and the Netherlands each call for different flood defences. The problems between the countries forming the river basins of the Rhine and the Nile are not the same. And, in seeking solutions, it makes a very big difference whether water depletion has natural causes, or is caused by over-extraction by industry or agriculture.

At the same time, and despite this enormous diversity, the international water world has succeeded in establishing a few basic principles. That is, I believe, the biggest leap forward we have taken in the past ten to fifteen years. Here in Stockholm, at the UN and at the four World Water Forums we have reached a broad consensus that Integrated Water Resource Management - IWRM - is the key to sustainable water management. We have seen this consensus reflected in the way the Global Water Partnership has developed in the ten years since it was set up. To start with, what mattered was awareness-raising and agenda-setting. Now, ten years on, most countries have IWRM plans, or they are working seriously on them. Since I am the Global Water Partnership's patron, you will understand that this makes me proud.

Every IWRM plan and every application of this concept is a reaffirmation of:

  • the crucial role water plays in working towards a sustainable future,
  • the enormous importance of both national and international cooperation at river basin level and, most importantly,
  • the fact that, at all levels, water is closely linked to food, ecosystems and social and economic opportunities.

The IWRM approach has been put into practice in many locations. Take for example, the well known Nile Basin Initiative, in which management of the river forms the basis for cooperation, not only between states but also between the agriculture and energy sectors and industry. Partnerships between the Rhine states form another, longstanding example. For many years, the Rhine Commission was only concerned with water quality, and much depended on a trade-off of interests. It proved successful. Pollution in the Rhine has been reduced by almost one hundred per cent. The European Union recently added a new dimension: the high water initiative. In principle, countries upstream may not pass on their problems with high water levels to their neighbours downstream. Trading off interests is no longer as important. It is now a matter of solidarity and real political will. Neither would have emerged without fifty years of trial, error and success in ensuring water quality.

Apart from these two fairly major examples, hundreds of smaller IWRM projects and partnerships have been set up, largely at local and regional level. That is what the Global Water Partnership refers to as the boldness of small steps. So we have a lot to be satisfied about.

And yet I cannot help feeling uneasy. Outside our conference halls, the integrated approach is by no means generally accepted. Other sectors have other interests, and their own policies and institutions. The interlinkages between sectors are not strong enough. Despite all the positive developments, conflicting interests between different water users are still a growing problem.

More and more we hear of mass protests and even violent riots over redistribution of limited water resources between the different user groups, especially in densely populated water stressed countries. Millions around the world suffer daily, from both socio-economic effects as well as plain water shortages, caused by ill-founded decisions made decades ago to build non-sustainable major infrastructure and dams. Mitigating these effects might still be just over our horizon, but we can try to avoid more of the same suffering and mistakes.

During the World Water Week held here in Stockholm five years ago, it was my privilege to launch the Dialogue on Water, Food and the Environment. I called on the people attending the forum not to keep this dialogue among themselves, but to reach out across sectoral borders. I think there is every reason to repeat this message today. The difference with five years ago is that the water sector is now definitely 'beyond the river'. We have crossed the bridge. Today, few water managers can be found who don't believe in an integrated approach or question the gravity of the worldwide water crisis. But unfortunately, the dialogue with other sectors has led to too few results beyond the field of water. That is the next level we have to conquer, if possible in one giant leap, if necessary with a new series of small, but bold steps.

The agriculture sector is the most urgent. Not only because water for food is often literally a matter of life and death, but also because the agriculture sector still uses eighty per cent of the world's water supply. So each percentage point reduction in this sector is an enormous step forward for other water users. The world population and the demand for water are growing, so it is essential that we conserve water. There is no avoiding it. As I have said so many times before, we need more crop per drop to feed future generations. And without IWRM we will not succeed.

Energy is another sector where integrated water management is urgently needed. Deposits of fossil fuels are shrinking, prices are rising fast, and so alternatives are becoming increasingly important. Hydroelectric power plants are now producing 17 per cent of the world's electricity. But their potential is far greater, in particular in developing countries. Thirty per cent is feasible in the long run. And however positive that sounds - not least for its capacity to reduce greenhouse gases - there is, as we are all aware, a very serious downside. The wide-scale construction of dams often has had a major negative impact on the lives of very many people. In 2000, the World Commission on Dams produced some very sensible recommendations. They deserve - and are getting - follow-up. Talks between interest groups are becoming more structured on the lives of many. Fourteen countries, for example, now hold national dialogues on the construction and management of dams. At global level, the UNEP Dams and Development Project brings stakeholders together. In all of these forums, no one questions the fact that IWRM is the key to a responsible approach to dams. And that is a very important step forward.

The question is, of course, how do you make sure that this message is put into practice all over the world? How do you convince farmers, energy producers, agricultural organisations and policymakers that they have to look further than their own fields, that they have to try new methods? And who is supposed to do that?

To start with the final question, I believe that the water sector needs to pioneer this process. That means you. All the thinking you have done in the past decades, all the knowledge you have generated of integrated processes, and, in particular, all your commitment and enthusiasm place a burden of responsibility on your shoulders. The IWRM concept is a powerful weapon, in particular because of the shared benefits it brings, such as more political stability, a fairer distribution of wealth and a healthier ecosystem. But those benefits will not be felt immediately. And, more importantly, you cannot eat or drink them. That is why I feel that the water sector would be more persuasive if we were to add as many deliverables as possible to the big picture. By that I mean measures, instruments and technical solutions that are relatively easy to introduce, and which yield rapid results. In other words, shared benefits should be preceded by instant benefits, to win people over to our ideas. Let me give you two examples.

First, recent studies show that it is more efficient to intercept and collect rainwater where it falls than to transport it over long distances for irrigation. That means there are good reasons to modernise and reintroduce traditional, relatively simple rainwater harvesting systems. That is something Miss Sunita Narain, the Indian winner of the 2005 Stockholm Water Prize, understands very well. In working for sustainable development, her organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, has targeted several aims at once: poverty reduction, a better environment, stronger democracy and better health care. For Miss Narain, the reintroduction of rain water harvesting, using traditional local methods in a new setting, was the most important step towards achieving these goals. And it has proved successful. The impressive results she has achieved in her own country show that this concept, which had largely been forgotten, has enormous potential in other parts of the world too.

But the strength of the water sector isn't only in its ability to modernise traditional methods. Innovation was the most important step forward achieving these goals. The science of genetics has now reached a point where aquaculture and the use of brackish water for farming are ripe for wide-scale application. Some crops thrive in shallow coastal waters. Samphire is one example. Other crops grow quite happily on a menu of brackish water - strand beet, for instance, the wild relative of the sugar beet. But that is not all. Salt-tolerant varieties of tomato have already been developed. Imagine what large-scale cultivation of these vegetables of the sea would mean for our freshwater systems. And how much easier it would be to tell people they have to do things differently, if we had an alternative to offer them. Give people good short-term prospects, and they will listen to your message for the longer term, and act on it. That is what I mean by 'instant benefits' and 'conquering the next level'.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am fully aware that I have not mentioned the most important conditions for success: vision and genuine leadership. They are essential in building the political will to work together across sectors. And of course I cannot hold you solely responsible for that. It is something everyone needs to work on every day, from their own position. Perhaps the words of Professor Biswas will inspire you. He recently said, "I have no problem calling a spade a spade. I firmly believe that science does not advance by consensus. If it did, we would still be living in the Dark Ages."

Ladies and gentlemen,

I believe that this fervent plea for candid discussions on complex problems isn't limited to the scientific debate. After all, it takes policy to put the results of research into practice. That is why I appeal to you, as experts and decision-makers, to actively seek out your counterparts in the world of politics and government. In your talks with them, call a spade a spade, as Professor Biswas does. Be tenacious and persuasive, and, above all, use all the knowledge and solutions at your disposal. It is no easy task to reach beyond the river. But we must take IWRM beyond the water sector. And I will continue to work with you to make that happen.

Thank you.