Minister Harbers at panel HELP, UN Water Conference 2023


Harbers: 'Let’s shift our focus to prevention and preparedness, so that in the coming decades we’re not taken by surprise by the increasing frequency, severity and uncertainty of these hazards, caused by climate change.'

Your Excellencies,

Honourable guests,

Dear Water friends,

It’s an honour for me to welcome you to the 6th UN Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters. Today’s water challenges call for action, cooperation and the exchange of knowledge and expertise. We need to radically change how water is used, managed and valued. So the world has come together here in New York for the UN 2023 Water Conference, which starts tomorrow.

Ninety per cent of the biggest disasters in the past twenty years have been water-related. And they’ve affected three billion people. From extreme droughts, to floods, tsunamis, storms and wildfires.

Climate change is accelerating this trend. By 2050, more than half of the global community will be exposed to water-related problems. And no region in the world is being spared. Like now in Italy, where the discharge of the Po River is already at very low summer levels due to ongoing drought. Or in my own country, the Netherlands, where we are constantly concerned about sea-level rise and erratic river inputs, while at the same time having to deal with drought and extreme rainfall events.

We’ve reached the point where we can no longer consider water, climate, disasters, policies, planning and investment as separate components. They are all part of the same puzzle and so need to be addressed through an integrated vision. Unfortunately, the way we currently tackle water-related disasters is often inadequate. Why wait for a disaster to occur that costs lives and causes billions in damage, and only then adapt?

Let’s shift our focus to prevention and preparedness, so that in the coming decades we’re not taken by surprise by the increasing frequency, severity and uncertainty of these hazards, caused by climate change.

We need to better align our plans, approaches and policies around disaster prevention. We need to share weather and water data to better align disaster prevention and water management, in policymaking and in decisions on de-risking and investment, at all levels. We need to invest in water and infrastructure.

Water connects the world in more ways than we previously thought. Not only through our rivers, lakes and groundwater, but also through atmospheric flows. And it’s the impact of human activity on the latter that we’re only just starting to understand. So we can no longer think of water as a local challenge. It’s a global one! If we fail on water, we also fail on climate change and almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In essence, the message is simple: Water is the most important source of life on earth. Water is the basis for development. Development of our economies, of nature, of humankind. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how vulnerable and connected the world is, and how great and far-reaching the consequences can be for society, the economy, health, food security, and peace and stability.

Now, in the post-pandemic world, we must seize the opportunity to change this! By recognising that countries, people and businesses need to take action on climate change, water and sanitation. By putting water at the centre of decision-making. By investing in water. For a safer, healthier and more prosperous world.

Dear water friends,

Actions speak louder than words. And we have no more time to waste!

That’s why, as your chair and co-host of the UN 2023 Water Conference, I want to encourage you to act on the outcome of our discussion this morning. And to make concrete commitments for inclusion in the Water Action Agenda, which will be one of the key outcomes of the conference.

Let us show our leadership. And for inspiration, let us occasionally glance at the sculpture of the woman releasing a bird with her arms outstretched, suggesting an unrestricted flight upwards.

Thank you.


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