His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince of Japan Keynote Lecture The United Nations Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters

November 18th, 2015
The United Nations Headquarters
New York, the U.S.A

Quest for better relations between people and water

Your Excellency Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General
Your Excellency Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, President of General Assembly
Dr. Han Seung-soo, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water, Chair of High-level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen


I am glad to give the key-note lecture in the second Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters in the United Nations.

A large number of disasters have occurred in the world. In the past five years alone, we witnessed the Great East Japan Earthquake and severe drought in East Africa in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, severe flooding in Central Europe and Typhoon Hayan in 2013, large-scale flooding in India and Pakistan in 2014, mud flow disaster in Colombia, an earthquake in Nepal, a tsunami in Chile, drought in Australia and the West Coast of the United States, flooding in the Kinu River of Japan, and severe flooding in the Carolinas of the United States in 2015, and, almost every year, recurrent hurricanes and typhoons in small island states. I would like to pray for the repose of the victims, and to express my deepest condolences to their families and other affected people. It is my wish that the affected areas will, as soon as possible, be built back better.

There is no topic of greater importance to our common future than water, nor one with deeper links to our common humanity. It is in this context that the UN High-level Water and Sanitation Days are organised this week. Various water events including this meeting and the Final Meeting of the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, on which I serve as Honorary President, will be held here during these Water Days.

Let me take this opportunity of the Water Days to look at the historical relations between human beings and water, learn some key lessons, and think, together with you, about better relations between people and water today and in the future.

2. How people feel and hope about water –from literature in Japan and the world–

Let me look at the field of literature through history to understand how people have felt and hoped about water. I do so because writing is a means of intellectually digesting and communicating to society what we feel and hope about things and events around us.

2.1 Water in Japanese Waka and Haiku (short poems)

Many poems and stories of the world refer to water in hundreds of ways as it is indispensable for people's lives and livelihood. Japanese Waka and Haiku are lyrical poems that depict scenes of nature and emotions of the people in short verses. They consist of rhythmical wordings of 31 and 17 Japanese syllables. I would like to cite some of those poems so that you might understand people's feelings and hopes about water. Let me start with this poem:

In the early dawn
When the mists on the Uji River
Slowly lift and clear
From the shallows to the deep
The stakes of fishing nets appear*

This Waka poem is in “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” from the early 13th Century , a compilation of one hundred works composed by eminent poets. The poem depicts delicately the beautiful morning on the Uji River near Kyoto (Fig.1). Wood stakes for fishing nets that gradually appear in the scene symbolize the harmony between people's livelihoods and nature.

Water, however, affects people in a harsh way if it is turned into heavy rain. I quote:
People's sorrow will unbearably increase
When rain falls in excess
May I plead to you, Great Eight Dragons,
To make the downpours cease

This poem by Sanetomo Minamoto, a Shogun in the Kamakura Period, in “Kinkaiwaka-shu” is referred to as “I composed the poem after having prayed to the Buddha Statue in July, 1211 when flooding immersed the world (the land), and the people deplored the tragedy.” Flooding brought such a great sorrow to the people that the Shogun Minamoto himself pleaded with the Great Eight Dragons, Gods of Water, to cease the downpour (Fig.2).

Droughts also bring grave calamity to the people. Yakamochi Ohtomo deplores in verses of his poem which was incerted into the Manyo-shu, the oldest anthology edited between the 7th and the 8th centuries (Fig.3). Let me quote:

Every day, no rain occurs
Every dawn, more rice withers
People cannot but cry for water
As if a baby cries for milk
May clouds beyond the mountains
Reach the ocean
And cover the whole sky
To give us showers

As we have seen, water touched people's emotions quite strongly although it may have evoked different emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, and humor. Extreme water events such as floods and droughts particularly made strong impacts on their minds. They were “Acts of Dragons” beyond their comprehension.

2.2 Water and disasters in ancient world literature

People's fear of flooding is common all over the world. This picture (Fig.4) shows the famous flood tablet. The tablet was excavated in what is now an area of Iraq and deciphered by George Smith in 1872. It is a small plate of 6 inches by 5.25 inches. Part of it reads, “Destroy houses and turn them into boats. Discard wealth and survive. Embark with all sorts of seeds. The boat should have the same length, width and height. The boat shall be covered with a roof. Later, great rain will occur.” The tablet shows that a story very similar to Noah's Ark in the Bible existed as long ago as the 7th Century B.C. in Mesopotamia.

It is also known that a similar flood story was recorded over one thousand years before that. The story of the deluge, a fundamental topic of the Epic of Gilgamesh, tells us that a flood has significant impact on the minds of people, influencing subsequent epics, societies, and even religions. The deluge was seen as a supernatural event empowered to transform the world.

3. From aspirations to action –Development of relations between people and water in medieval and early-modern Japan–

As we have seen in these examples, people had strong feelings, interests, and aspirations about water. Water has had a direct impact not only on lives and livelihoods but on the emotions of the people.

As economy and society develop, people have gained knowledge, experience and technology. Under such an enabling environment, aspirations for water were turned into willingness to act on water for social benefits. I would like to introduce some cases from medieval to early modern Japan in which water was deeply related to the people and formation of their society and economy.

3.1 Relations between people and water in Medieval Japan – Visiting the Kaseda Manor in the Kiinokuni region

Private ownership of lands by temples and local lords was systematized in medieval Japan. Those privately owned lands were called manors. This summer I visited the archives and waterworks of the Kiinokuni region as it was called in the medieval period and it is now Wakayama Prefecture. I studied the rapport between people and water generated in one manor (Fig.5).

This is a map of the Kaseda Manor (Fig.6). The Manor was established in the Kiinokuni region in the late 12th Century. The map is well-known as it clearly shows the typical composition of a manor in the period. You can see the Shizu River running from east to west and turning its course to the south to join the Kinokawa River, the main stream. You can also see paddy fields in the center, temples in the upper right, and communities in the left and along the main road.

This is another map of the Kaseda Manor in the mid-17th Century (Fig.7). The comparison of land registers in the two periods indicates that paddy fields area doubled in the Kaseda Area. What made this enlargement of paddy fields possible? The answer is in this picture.

The three weirs in the center of the map were the key for development. The paddy fields in the 12th Century were presumably irrigated by water stored in small ponds in hilly areas. The ponds did not provide enough water for larger areas. The three weirs in the picture were built to fill the gap between water supply and demand.

As building a weir in the main stream was technically difficult, people presumably built weirs and intakes from the tributary, the Shizu River. Connecting waterways were constructed in stages. Tributaries and ponds were used as water channels. Larger amounts of water taken from the weirs were diverted to connecting waterways, distributors and branches (Fig.8). The waterworks enabled irrigating far larger areas than previous ones. It is surmised that these works were completed between the 15th and the 16th centuries.

As seen here, the social and economic development of medieval Japan was closely related to the development of water networks. I was deeply impressed by the process through which people's aspirations about water were turned into reality by their wisdom and efforts.

3.2 “Kishu Method” and “Kanto Method” in early modern Japan

These cases are just small examples of relations between people and water. However, the experiences and lessons accumulated in this local area of Kaseda led to a major change in the shape of Japan.

Kiinokuni was ruled by the regional government of Kishu in the early 18th Century. The Government of Kishu built the Odai Waterway running through the Kaseda Area. The Odai Project enabled the irrigation of an area as large as 1,000 hectares by drawing water from the Kinokawa River, the main river. The central government was impressed by this “water success.” When I visited the Tone River in 2009, I learned that the Shogun Yoshimune Tokugawa summoned to the capital the chief engineer of the Odai Project, Yasobei Izawa. Izawa employed the most advanced technology at that time, such as instrumental surveys and syphon works, to build the Minumadai Waterway near Tokyo. The waterway, as long as 60 kilometers, enabled irrigation of 15,000 hectares, an area 15 times larger than the Odai (Fig.9). This experience and technology spread all around the Kanto area, which created the foundation of agricultural development in pre-modern Japan.

The knowledge and technology transferred from the Kishu Area was called the “Kishu Method” in comparison with the “Kanto Method” which had been used in the capital area (Fig.10). According to the “Kanto Method,” low levees were built to contain small floods in the water course whereas they let larger floods flow to the hinterlands. According to the “Kishu Method,” continuous high levees maintained a high flood water in the water course, which enabled much higher agricultural productivity in larger areas behind the levees.

The people's attempts to manage water through small ponds led to the construction of local water weirs and channels in the Kaseda Manor, then to the Odai Irrigation Project by the regional government of Kishu, and finally to large-scale irrigation projects in old Tokyo and throughout the nation. As seen in this figure (Fig.11), food production soared as a result of the technological development of water, which was followed by rapid population growth. The foundation of modern Japan was formed through this increase of food production in tandem with population growth. As we have seen, wisdom and technology on water was developed and passed on over generations and across regions. This then led to an advancement of the nation. I was deeply impressed by this process in which water played a critical role.

4. New driving force for turning aspirations into reality – Development of science and technology in the 21st Century and its impact on disaster management

We have seen through history what people's feelings and aspirations about water were like and how these aspirations have become a reality. This process has not changed in the modern world. However, the relation between people and water has been influenced by the rapid development of science and technology in the last two centuries. This is particularly true in the field of water and disasters.

Human life comes first when addressing the challenges of water and disasters. It is critical to save people's lives from disasters through timely forecasts and early warnings. I would like to draw your attention to disaster reduction methods by satellite and information technology. The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) in this figure (Fig.12) is a global collaborative initiative to observe the earth from the sky and the land.

Massive data on water, atmosphere, lands and oceans are collected, integrated and put into archives in the Data Integrated Analysis System (DIAS). The data are effectively managed and used in the areas of disaster reduction, agriculture, climate, environment and so forth (Fig.13-1, 13-2). For example, researchers using DIAS found that an increased atmospheric temperature above the Himalayas will cause climatic disturbances in East Asia. The Integrated Flood Analysis System (IFAS) can give satellite-based flood forecasts and early warnings in remote areas and developing countries where ground-based rain data are not available (Fig.14).

It is also important for people to understand the meaning of disaster information they receive, and to take adequate measures such as prompt evacuations. This video (Fig.15) shows how heavy-rain clouds developed over Japan this year in the summer. From motion pictures like these, one can help citizens intuitively to understand the mechanisms of disasters.

Building a disaster-resilient society comes next. For example, the new Delta Plan was established in the Netherlands, where 26 percent of the land area is below the sea water level (Fig.16-1, 16-2). The plan assumes that the sea water level will rise by 0.65 meters to 1.3 meters in 100 years. Multiple measures will be taken to assure that the citizens are safe against floods that may occur once in 100,000 years. This plan reinforces a previous one that presumes those in 10,000 years.

The United States has strengthened national disaster preparedness taking into consideration the experience and lessons of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The flood damage was significantly reduced in Hurricane Isaac and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 thanks to enhanced preparedness (Fig.17). A dual-purpose tunnel for flood drainage and car transportation was constructed in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia (Fig.18). It helps to manage both flooding and traffic jams in the capital. France, in collaboration with the OECD, has conducted a full-scale flood impact analysis of the Seine River in the Greater Paris Area and has proposed comprehensive flood mitigation measures (Fig.19).

Various efforts to improve water environment and flood preparedness are underway in Japan. This picture (Fig.20) shows an urban complex in Tokyo which I recently visited. A large-scale sewage treatment plant under the building harnesses rain storage and a biogas power plant (Fig.21). This complex recycles water and energy and reduces flooding. At the national level, climate change adaptation measures that employ both structural and non-structural measures are underway.

Drought is one of the most important water-related disasters (Fig.22). The number of occurrences of drought in the last 20 years is just 5% of a total number of disasters. However, the number of affected people by drought in the same period reaches 1.1 billion that accounts for 25% of the total. 41% of drought occurs in Africa, 25% in the Americas, and 24% in Asia.

As drought damage is intricately related to long-term climate, social and environmental conditions, drought risk reduction requires multi-faceted approaches of which elements include governance, early warnings, education and preparedness. Recent progress of information technology has enabled advancement of early warnings on drought. For example, the development of drought can be closely monitored through analyzing not only hydrological data but land data such as ground-moisture collected by newly launched satellites. Early warnings on drought are expected to advance further as ocean research works about the effects of El-Nino and Di-pole phenomena on regional climate and weather conditions are in progress.

Thus, disaster risk reduction actions based on advanced science and technology are rapidly making progress. These cases and good practices should be shared among countries through workshops and data bases. The international community is encouraged to collaborate to deliver the benefits of science and technology to people everywhere, especially those who suffer from poverty.

5. Exploring better relations between people and water

People's feeling and hopes were intertwined with the surrounding nature and society, which led to concrete relations between people and water. Based on historical relations between human beings and water, how should we relate to water in the future?

One of the lessons is that our feelings and aspirations on water are deeper than we think. This reflects the long-standing relations across generations. Pursuing higher efficiency and physical advantages through water management is not enough. We should review the historical relations between people and water, draw upon people's deep feelings about water, and reflect on this in our future water management.

The case of the Kaseda Manor exemplified the way in which good practices of water management can be transferred to other areas. The transfer may even lead to the transformation of a nation. Learning from good practices can be a short cut to better water management. Many public events such as UN conferences like this one, the World Water Forum, and Regional Water Summits have been held for information sharing and open discussion. I hope these opportunities are effectively used by many to learn from one another and to galvanize action to solve water problems.

The world is still facing many water challenges although a lot of improvements have already been achieved. 663 million people still lack access to improved water sources. 2.4 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation. Economic damages from water-related disasters are globally increasing. Promotion of trans-boundary water cooperation is also a critical challenge. We are in a century of science and technology. Collaboration by the international community is expected to deliver the benefits of science and technology to every corner of the world, especially to people suffering from poverty.

We are at the juncture of following-up the Summit for Sustainable Development and preparing for COP21. We should take this opportunity to deepen discussions and accelerate action to solve water and sanitation challenges.

I would like to conclude my lecture by reciting my favorite Haiku by Fura Maeda. (Fig.23).

Overlaying the quarter
Is Mt. Tateyama in the background
There, water is sprinkled
To cool the streets

The poem reminds me of a town of Toyama where majestic Mt. Tateyama stands in the background, overlaying the town. People sprinkle water to enjoy cooled streets in the summer. Water benefits us in many ways. Mountain streams are turned into water for drinking and agriculture. Shortage or excess of water, on the other hand, has a negative impact on people and their lives. I will continue my efforts to bring about a world where people can live peacefully and happily as depicted in this poem.

Thank you.

* this English translation is quoted from “Hyakunin-Isshu (Single Songs of a Hundred Poets) and Nori no Hatsu-Ne (The Dominant Note of the Law)”, Clay MacCauley, Kelly and Walsh, Ltd., 1917
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