Opening remarks by HRH the Prince of Orange

New York, USA, 7 May 2007

at the preparatory meeting on the International Year of Sanitation 2008.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome. As chair of UNSGAB, the United Nations Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, I was thrilled last December when the General Assembly accepted our recommendation and unanimously adopted the resolution declaring 2008 the International Year of Sanitation. Today I'm delighted that we can officially start preparing to make it a success. There is an enormous amount of work to be done and I thank you in advance for your readiness to do your share.

UNSGAB was established in 2004 to speed up progress on MDG 7, target 10, the MDG target on water and sanitation. Our own Hashimoto Action Plan summarises in just eleven pages the points requiring swift and resolute action. In short: we need more political commitment, more cross-sectoral cooperation and more money. The International Year of Sanitation is an important vehicle to achieve all this.

Today we start mapping out a course of action that will enable us to pick up the pace on water and sanitation. As far as I am concerned, this meeting will focus on one central question. What do we want to achieve by the end of 2008, and how do we achieve it? It is important that between now and November, when the International Year of Sanitation will be launched, we take the step from general objectives to measurable targets. Targets expressed in figures, percentages and money, and in concrete project plans and partnerships.

And that immediately brings me to the question I want to ask each and every one of you. What can you do, en route to 2015, to put achievement of the sanitation goals on the fast track? What organisational and financial sources can you tap? And how are you going to do it? I hope to hear more about that today. I can imagine that you also have questions. For instance, what role will UN DESA play as lead agency? What role will the other UN agencies play? And what can UNSGAB itself contribute through the Hashimoto Action Plan? In other words, today we have to look each other squarely in the face and say what we promise to contribute to the International Year of Sanitation 2008!

Ladies and gentlemen,

I could give many separate reasons why UNSGAB has called for an International Year of Sanitation. But let me confine myself to the most important.

  • Every fifteen seconds, a child somewhere in the world dies of diarrhoea - that's two million children a year.
  • Worldwide 2.6 billion people still have no safe place to go to the toilet.
  • And at the current rate of progress we will not reach our 2015 target on sanitation before 2026. For Sub-Saharan countries it will take another hundred years, which means that an extra 133 million African children will die if nothing changes.

So there are enough revealing facts and figures. And each of them is sufficient justification to hold the International Year of Sanitation. And yet, there is an even better reason, namely that investing in MDG 7's sanitation target yields multiple returns. The key words here are 'health' and 'dignity'.

MDG 4 is about reducing child mortality. MDG 5 speaks of improving maternal health. And MDG 6 aims - amongst other things - to combat life-threatening water borne diseases. Yet it will be impossible to achieve these health goals without providing as many people as possible with basic sanitation. That is an absolute prerequisite. In a recent poll, held by the British Medical Journal among 11,000 medical practitioners worldwide, sanitation was voted the most important medical breakthrough since the mid-nineteenth century. More important even than the invention of antibiotics and the X-ray, or the discovery of DNA. And they were right.

The second key word is dignity. MDG 2 is about universal primary education. MDG 3 focuses on gender equality and the empowerment of women. But how on earth will these goals be achieved without decent water supplies and sanitation? The answer is that they will not. First of all, as long as young girls have to spend almost all day collecting water for the family, they cannot even start thinking about going to school. And then there's a second problem. In some rural areas in Asia for example, more than fifty per cent of all girls drop out of school in second and third grade because there are no sanitary facilities. It only takes a simple toilet in a clean, private environment to turn the tide.

The same is true for women's empowerment. Women who are forced to relieve themselves at the most unfortunate moments in the most hazardous places, risking everything from urological diseases to harassment and rape, are not likely to stand up for their rights. Many examples show that self-esteem begins with having a safe and proper toilet facility. And that confident women, playing an active role in their community, are the best guarantee that progress towards achieving all the Millennium Development Goals will be significantly advanced.

So every dollar spent on sanitation is a dollar spent on at least five other MDGs. I bet you've never had a better deal: buy one, get five for free. I myself like to compare achieving the MDGs with solving Rubik's famous Cube. Our cube also has six sides: water, food, energy, poverty reduction, health and ecosystems. And they are all closely linked. That is what makes it so complicated. But, as I just pointed out, if we first put the blue side, good water management, in place - and in particular the block that represents sanitation - it will be much easier to get the other colours right. Because achieving the MDGs starts with healthy people leading dignified lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, today we are discussing the road map for 2008, so we all know what to do to give sanitation the big push it so urgently needs. I should like to impress on you from the start that there's no point in trying to convert the converted once again. In the months that lie ahead of us, we need to reach out to other sectors and to decision-makers who have both the power and the money to make a real difference.

We at UNSGAB, for example, are in the middle of a series of regional dialogues involving not only the water sector but also the regional development banks and other key players. Last December we had a regional dialogue on Africa where the need for a cross-sectoral approach was a key element in all the discussions. Later this month we will have a regional dialogue on Asia during our Board's meeting in Shanghai. Latin America is on our agenda in Bogotá in November, and I'm proud to say that the Inter-American Development Bank has already strongly committed itself to making this dialogue a success. It recently launched its own highly promising programme on water supply and sanitation.

In the run-up to the launch of the International Year of Sanitation in 2008, we will have to work very hard to establish and maintain cross-sectoral links of this kind. Not only at UN level, but also at regional, national and local level. Not only between governments, but also with NGOs and the private sector. And above all: not individually, but jointly. If we succeed, I am convinced that by the end of 2008, we will really have taken the steps needed to achieve the sanitation targets by 2015 - or, at any rate, to have brought them a lot closer.

I personally believe that we have good reason to stay positive. Don't forget that in 2000 people were above all sceptical about the MDGs, seeing them as unattainable ideals. Seven years later, we are looking at the extra steps that need to be taken to achieve them. That kind of positive, action-driven approach is what we need - and that goes for the International Year of Sanitation too. We don't need any new plans or grand schemes. All the knowledge is out there. But what we do need is action. So let's get to work.

Thank you.