Speech by the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, Melanie Schultz van Haegen, at the seminar ‘Towards safe and sustainable water management in Myanmar’, Nay Pyi Taw, 29 May 2013

‘Today we mark a new beginning, by breathing new life into age-old relations’, said minister Schultz van Haegen at the seminar on water management in Nay Pyi Taw (Myanmar). ‘As friends we are ready to support Myanmar through practical, sustainable and long-term economic cooperation. We’re happy to share our knowledge with you. So that together we can look for solutions to Myanmar’s challenges: flood prevention, clean water and fertile land. In other words: the pursuit of a life lived in safety, health and prosperity. At the same time, we can also learn from you: Because in my country, too, we have to keep on gathering knowledge. We need to keep responding to our changing climate and to extreme weather. And we need to keep dealing with all the resulting problems.’

Mr Vice President,
Your Excellencies,
ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to thank you for your warm welcome.
Today is a historic day:

It marks the first official bilateral visit of a Dutch cabinet minister to Myanmar.
So of course this is a great honour for me.

When preparing for my visit, I discovered that the ties between our countries are actually not that new.
They go back hundreds of years.
Almost four centuries to be precise.

On the 14th of May 1634 a Dutch merchant ship set sail from a port in what is now India.
The ship, called the Vlielandt, was on its way to Syriam, which is now Thanlyin.

The journey marked the beginning of almost fifty years of trade between our two countries.
During this time, the Dutch East India Company opened three trading posts in Myanmar.

One of these was in Bago.
The merchants called the post ‘’t Winckeltje’.
Or in English: ‘The Little Shop’.

The main goods traded here were textiles and cotton,
But stick-lac, crude oil and musk from your country were also in great demand in the Netherlands.

We have water to thank for those years of successful trade between our countries.

Your main cities were located on the Irrawaddy river and its tributaries.
And from your cities our ships reached the whole of Asia and Europe.

So both our countries lived with and prospered by water.
In that respect not much has changed in almost four centuries.

We both still have a close relationship with water today.
And we are both aware that good water management is vital.

Water is our friend, we can’t live without it.
But it can be our enemy too, as the Netherlands has found in the past.
And your country has seen this all too often in recent years.

Like the tsunami in 2004.
Or Cyclones Nargis and Giri in 2008 en 2010.
And just two weeks ago, Cyclone Mahasen sadly brought more damage to your country.

But I am happy to hear that there was less damage than originally feared.

The Netherlands has not been hit by such violent natural disasters in its recent history.
But we are well aware of how seriously they affect countries and their people.

Like Myanmar, the Netherlands is a river delta.  
Almost one-third of our country lies below sea level.
And almost two-thirds is vulnerable to flooding.
These are the areas where most of our people live.
And where most of our GDP is earned.
And like Myanmar, the Netherlands has a relatively long coastline.

So there’s a lot at stake for both our nations.

First, there’s our physical safety.
Both our countries need to be properly protected against flooding.
Of course, we can’t prevent cyclones and tsunamis.
But we can do our best to prepare ourselves for them and protect our people,
minimising the effects.

And sometimes we can prevent floods.
By building dykes and dams, for example.
And with spatial planning that minimises the chances of people falling victim to disaster. 

Second, water is a basic necessity of live for people, livestock and crops. 
Clean drinking water keeps us alive.
And good sanitation keeps us healthy.
But we also need clean water for growing food.
And not just clean water, but also enough of it.

Not too much and not too little,
as that can ruin an entire (rice) harvest.

Third, water is essential to our economies.
Navigable waterways form important transport channels.
That’s something we’ve known for centuries, both in Myanmar and in the Netherlands.

Dutch merchants sailed the rivers of this country right up to Inwa (or Ava as it was called at the time).
By making our rivers as easy to navigate as possible, we create new transport opportunities.

[korte adempauze]

Over the past centuries, the Netherlands has gathered a wealth of experience when it comes to water.

A fact shown by the many senior officials in Myanmar’s water sector, who graduated from universities in the Netherlands.

What’s more, we have also learned many crucial lessons over the years.
The most important one is this:

When it comes to water, everything is interwoven. 
If you learn to manage water properly, you will see it as a system.

That’s why we in the Netherlands believe in integrated water resources management.

We look at all aspects of what water has to offer us:

First, we look at flood protection, water quality and availability;

Second, we look at the needs and wishes of all those involved: government authorities, businesses and the general public.

Third, there is nature conservation and river beds and banks.

And fourth, and maybe the most crucial of all,

spatial planning and safe and sustainable urban development.

We are keen to share what we have learned with others.  
Why? Because our approach to water has brought us safety and prosperity.

And because we believe that you shouldn’t keep the things you’ve learned to yourself.

Today, the Netherlands is known throughout the world for its knowledge of water. 
Dutch companies operate around the globe and have excellent reputations.

In this region you’ll find us working on flood protection and water quality in Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam.
And today we’re happy to share our knowledge with you.
So that together we can look for solutions to Myanmar’s challenges:
flood prevention, clean water and fertile land.

In other words, the pursuit of a life lived in safety, health and prosperity.

At the same time, we can also learn from you:
We can learn from your approach to water and the opportunities and threats it brings with it.
The knowledge built up in Myanmar and the progress achieved here are of great importance to the Netherlands.
Because in my country, too, we have to keep on gathering knowledge.

We need to keep responding to our changing climate and to extreme weather that is becoming more and more common.
And we need to keep dealing with all the resulting problems.

[korte adempauze]

Your Excellencies,
ladies and gentlemen,

We all know that Myanmar is undergoing rapid change.
Both politically and economically.

As is normal in times of change, there are significant challenges to be addressed.

But in times of change you also discover who your real friends are.
And I am here to invest in our friendship.

We look forward to a fruitful partnership.
A partnership built around political reform, respect for human rights and economic development.

As friends, we are ready to support Myanmar through practical, sustainable and long-term economic cooperation.
Cooperation that will benefit the people of both Myanmar and the Netherlands.

So today we mark a new beginning.
Breathing new life into age-old relations.

Since 1634 the world has changed beyond recognition. 
But some things have stayed the same.

Like water, which still connects us today.
And I hope that water will continue to connect us for centuries to come.

The first step towards achieving this is the Memorandum of Understanding that my fellow minister Myint Hlaing and I are about to sign.

We will be fleshing out this agreement in a work programme covering the years ahead.  
Our main priority will be to set a new strategy for integrated water resources management.  

So, we’ve got plenty of work ahead of us!

Let’s share a as much knowledge as possible with each other today and make this conference a great success.

I hope this day will go down in history as the start of a close and productive friendship.
Just as in those long forgotten times, nearly four hundred years ago.

And to that end, I hope to learn and see much more of your beautiful country in the days ahead.

Thank you.