Speech by the Prince of Orange

Vienna, Austria, 25 September 2007

at the Public Services International Centennial Congress.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour and a pleasure to be with you at this Congress to celebrate a hundred years of trade unionism in the public sector. Let me congratulate PSI and more than 20 million public sector workers on one hundred years of impressive achievements in central government, in health and social care, in municipal and community services and in public utilities.

It will come as no surprise to you to hear that I am proud that workers from the Netherlands attended your founding meeting a hundred years ago.

The last time I met the PSI family of unions was in slightly different circumstances, at the Second World Water Forum in The Hague in 2000. I still have vivid memories of our heated debates on the issue of privatisation. We have all come a long way since then and I am happy to be here today to talk to you about water and sanitation and especially about your role in this field and your contributions to it. Solving water and sanitation problems is a big challenge to all of us, including workers and unions. It is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time.

As we all know, water is essential to life on this planet. Water is needed by every living thing. Safe water and effective sanitation are vital for human beings and human health. They are "precursors" of social development. The statistics are revealing: half of all hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from waterborne diseases; five times more children die from diarrhoea than from HIV/AIDS; every dollar invested in water and sanitation results in at least seven dollars of productive activity. And I could go on and on.

It is hard to comprehend that in this day and age, with all our wealth and technological sophistication, more than one billion people still have no access to safe drinking water and more than two billion have no access to basic sanitation services. This might not be a perfect world, but we should be able to solve this problem. How to do it is the real question.

There are many who point to the vast sums of money needed, but I don't think this is the biggest issue. If we take a collective decision to provide water and sanitation, the money will follow. The problem is largely one of priority and political will. This is the challenge I am working on, in my capacity as Chair of the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, better known as UNSGAB. UNSGAB was established in 2004 by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to advise him on the actions needed to meet the Millennium Development Goal's target for water and sanitation: to reduce by half by 2015 the number of people who don't have access to safe water and basic sanitation. We are now at the halfway point, and it is clear that the goals will not be met in many countries. With 5,000 children dying every day due to water-related diseases, there is a real need to speed up the process, to combine and strengthen our efforts and to put real, sustainable solutions into action.

In UNSGAB, where all decisions are taken by consensus, we agreed that we cannot afford to reject any solution for improved access to water and basic sanitation, as long as it is sustainable. How can I look an inhabitant of Kibera, Dharavi or Rocinha in the eye and tell him that we are spending precious time debating the pros and cons of public or private operation of water services when he is paying so much of his income to a vendor who delivers water of dubious quality and when his children are dying of waterborne diseases because of a total lack of sanitation?

Let's put aside our past differences and join forces to help those who really need it, the one billion un-served and under-served poor people in the slums of our megacities!

As you know, water and sanitation services are mainly local services, ideally delivered regularly and reliably to each and every household. This requires a lot of infrastructure, which is where the initial investments are needed. Once in place, this infrastructure requires operation and upkeep to ensure long-term service delivery. The high costs of constructing large-scale infrastructure are often used as an excuse to shy away from taking responsibility or showing commitment, but we should not forget that there is more to water and sanitation than large-scale infrastructure alone. Positive results can also be achieved with single household solutions, with hygiene education and small-scale new technologies that may become available at an acceptable price in the near future.

Publicly owned water operators currently provide more than 90% of the world's piped water. There are literally thousands of them. One estimate says that there are more than 250,000, of all shapes and sizes, serving big cities, small towns and rural areas, in countries rich and poor. Public operators play a key role in serving the majority of people. Many of them are doing a great job, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. However, in many parts of the world local water utilities should be delivering a better service than they do at the moment. Recognising the need to strengthen the performance of the weaker public operators, our Board has been looking at ways of facilitating the transfer of know-how and technology to support them. We found that operators who perform well are the best source of knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, however, very few weaker, under-performing operators are able to tap into this potential support. The Board resolved to encourage and facilitate partnerships between operators, so that strong operators can help the weaker ones.

This led to our recommendation to develop worldwide water operator partnerships. These are partnerships between a public operator wishing to perform better and an experienced well-managed operator, public or private.

We also recommended mobilising adequate global-level support from multilateral institutions so that water operator partnerships could be created both within countries and across borders. Our intention is clear: for water operators to help and support each other, learn from each other and exchange experience and knowledge in order to improve public water services and sanitation worldwide.

This was one of the most important recommendations of the Board, contained in the Hashimoto Action Plan, presented in March 2006. Actions are recommended in five other areas: financing; sanitation; monitoring progress; water and disasters, and integrated water resource management.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan accepted the recommendations and asked UN-Habitat, the agency responsible for human settlements, to implement the global water operator partnerships. As more than one billion of the world's poor are living in what we euphemistically call "informal settlements", better known as slums, I think UN-Habitat is the best organisation for the job.

UN-Habitat has since been active, creating an implementation plan, looking for support from donors and development banks, and holding preparatory meetings in the regions. And I can say that the present Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, is very supportive of this work, and understands the importance of strengthening our efforts to achieve the MDG targets for water and sanitation.

What I would like to discuss with you here is the role of workers and unions. UNSGAB recognises that without workers, none of this will get done. So what is the best way to involve workers? And to involve the unions? You have local, national, regional and global structures. You have been active for more than 100 years.

I have seen unions very actively blocking privatisation initiatives in the sector. I have seen unions active in strikes in defence of rights, and for better wages and working conditions. But I have not yet seen unions active in building public services, in pulling together to achieve this new vision. That is not to say they are not doing so, but that what they are doing is not visible.

I know that you and your colleagues deliver public services in what are often very difficult circumstances, including the scenes of disasters and war situations, and I salute you for that. But we now have to work together to meet this one challenge and seize this one opportunity in the water and sanitation sector.

I also know that UN-Habitat staff want to involve unions in this project and that PSI might be interested in joining in. And of course David Boys, our respected UNSGAB member, is working on workers' participation in the water sector.

My job as chair of UNSGAB is to address as many actors as possible in this sector and to convince them all to pull together towards a common goal. I think that workers and unions are key actors and that they could play a more prominent role in the water and sanitation sector. We should realise that if we are to bring water and sanitation services to the billions of people who need them, it will not only take a lot of work but will also create a lot of new jobs.

I want to hear your frontline experiences. I want to know how trade unions and workers in all regions are going to help us achieve the Millennium Development Goals and sustain high-quality water and sewerage services that are accessible to all users and affordable for consumers and taxpayers.

When I tell management that it is essential to work with workers and unions to solve problems, I want to be confident that unions will indeed show willingness and be open to discussion and cooperation. Your practical expertise needs to be used to improve services. What can we do differently? For example, what are your ideas about bringing services to urban slums, which have no public services?

What help do you need from the international system? Do we need to create additional ways of giving international recognition to trade unions that are working hard to improve the sector, to encourage them to invest their time and energy and to build alliances with citizens, municipalities and utility managers? Should we help gather and publicise examples of successful management-worker cooperation in key decisions? Should we encourage the development banks and donors to increase spending on capacity building and worker participation? Your answers to these questions could support progress in developing and maintaining the provision of water and sanitation services for all who are desperately in need of them.

I also want to alert you to the fact that 2008 will be the international year of sanitation. We need to mobilise everyone. Providing sanitation services is enormously important for individual health and dignity, but also to protect our precious water resources and for overall development.

Above all, I hope that you will sign up to work with us on the basis of the recommendations of the Hashimoto Action Plan - including our shared commitment to public operators, the not-for-profit principle and the wish to extend the quality of public services to those who do not enjoy them at present. Let me stress again that the matter is urgent, because, as we all know, meeting those goals is a huge job.

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me express my thanks to you and to PSI as a whole for this opportunity to share ideas on engaging the unions in our challenging and important work. I look forward to hearing your views on the role that workers and unions can play in improving water and sanitation services all over the world, and on their commitment to this task and the practical contributions they can make.

Thank you.