Water prince becomes king

Our crown prince with a passion for water is to become king. TU Delft contributed to his becoming a water prince.
“I think I have found a field I’d like to get my teeth into”, crown prince Willem Alexander told Paul Witteman in an interview.

It was September 1997 and the prince had just turned thirty. “It’s water management,” he said, sitting up straight. “I beg your pardon?” Witteman replied. “Water management. Water is such a fantastic element. It is a vital necessity of life, it means health, it means environment, it means transport. It can mean a battle against the water or a fight for more water. It can mean all kinds of things and there are countless options open. And above all, it is so very typically Dutch.”

Balanced exploration

“That comment resonated with the Faculty of Civil Engineering”, Emeritus Professor Kees d’Angremond of Hydraulic Engineering remembers. He was Dean of CEG from 1996 to 1998. “We were really pleased, for two reasons: we expected it to both stimulate student interest in our degree programme and enhance the image of hydraulic engineering in the Netherlands. As a faculty, and as Dean I took the initiative, we then wrote a fairly reserved letter explaining our enthusiasm about the prince’s intention to become involved in water, pointing out that there are more facets to water than water management alone, such as hydraulic engineering for example. As faculty we offered to help the prince make appropriate contacts to enable him to explore the various facets and gain a balanced impression of the entire field. We offered to help him find his way, no more than that. I later understood that this was the reason that the faculty was contacted and invited to join the prince’s supervisory committee.”

Around this time Huub Savenije,then Professor of Water Resources Management at the Unesco IHE Institute in Delft, was putting the final touches to the summary of the water policy document on water. He was writing it together with Bert Diphoorn of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the request of former Minister of Development Cooperation Jan Pronk. The television was on, the prince was talking about his plans and Diphoorn said: “This report will go down well.” Savenije: “And so it did. We handed the report in and were invited to visit the prince’s father, Claus, who was inspector general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Claus saw the book and said: ‘Look, this would be ideal for my son!’”

From then on, the two ran in parallel: the prince’s education in what was to become known as ‘the small class’ (het klasje) and representatives of the Ministries of Transport and Water Management and Foreign Affairs scouting for suitable positions for the prince. Bert Diphoorn (Foreign Affairs) conceived the idea of bringing the World Water Forum to the Netherlands in the year 2000 and appointing the prince chairman of that. The preparatory phase involved numerous visits abroad to such countries as Brazil, South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia. Huub Savenije, Professor of Water Resources Management at TU Delft from 1999, accompanied the prince on many of these visits “to acquaint Willem Alexander with the international issues and what would take place at the World Water Forum.”

Small Class

The programme was set up by a supervisory committee made up of Kees d’Angremond (on behalf of TU Delft), IHE Director Wil Segeren, Gerrit Blom (Director General of Rijkswaterstaat), former politician Pieter Winsemius and the former CEO of Heidemij, Maarten van Dis. This group drafted initial plans for the prince’s programme.

One of the guiding principles in this was that the prince was to mix with age peers and not be mollycoddled. Savenije was asked to lead ’the small class’ of the prince and age peers. “I did that then for about a year. The group consisted of around twenty people of his age from various companies and government authorities. It involved me doing a sort of crash course one afternoon a week. We filled the time with lectures, role-play and group work. These were related to all aspects of water management.”

D’Angremond adds: “Those were very enthusiastic sessions. I saw some of it here in the lab. We’d just be there in the background. The prince would be standing near the wave channel and chatting very informally with fellow students until they suddenly realised that it was ‘not done’ and they’d both shy back.”

Savenije recalls: “We also used to do role play in the class, where one of them would be the farmer and the other was responsible for the energy supply or water distribution. Once the role play was underway, no-one noticed he was any different to the rest. He was very flexible in that respect. You’d soon have the kind of situation you’d expect between ordinary students. Willem Alexander grasps things very quickly. Television interviewers would sometimes suggest that the prince was not very smart, but I would always tell them that he really was good and quick on the uptake. He was one of our better students, absolutely. Mathematical equations might not have been his forte but he certainly had insight.”

Naked demonstrators

As chairman of the 2000 World Water Forum in The Hague, Willem Alexander was to prove himself on an international stage. However, the meeting did not go as smoothly as expected. Demonstrators hung on ropes from the ceiling while others had chained themselves to chairs. Two of them undressed on stage in front of the speaker, a minister from Egypt. They undressed and handcuffed themselves to each other. Written on their bottoms were the words: ‘Damn the Dams’. Initially, the minister carried on speaking. He was perhaps confused by the cultural nature of the gathering. After all, just shortly before there had been a dance with scantily clad ladies spraying each other with water, so maybe he thought the demonstrators were part of that. But then those two were removed and demonstrators at the back of the hall started shouting: Damn the Dams! Damn the Dams! Savenije, who was sitting behind the prince on the stage, recalls: “It was all very well orchestrated and went on and on until Willem Alexander intervened. He was sitting next to the Director General and said: I’m going to intervene, is that alright? Fine, the Director General said. Then Willem Alexander stepped forward and said: ‘If you would just come down and sit in the hall you could join in the discussion.’ He did that in such an authoritative yet pleasant way. It was impressive. It demonstrated his potential.”


Henk Jan Overbeek, Emeritus Professor of Hydraulic Engineering and former Dean of CEG(1998 – 2001), believes that this contributed to the prince being appointed Chair of the UN Commission on Water and Sanitation.

Overbeek is a member of the Advisory Board on Water, which was founded in 2004 to advise the minister ‘when asked and at its own initiative’. Willem Alexander is Chair of the Advisory Board and as such makes statements which sometimes go against the Ministerial line.

“The most recent example is the dialogue between the technical/scientific world and the Ministry about our water safety”, Overbeek says. “On several occasions the Advisory Board issued recommendations and Willem Alexander had to be sure of the support of the others and that he could justify what he said. The message is that we need to adopt a different approach to our water safety.

The theory used to be: don’t talk about safety because that would only suggest the situation is unsafe and scare people. Nowadays, it is perfectly normal to discuss evacuation and ‘multi-layer safety’. That is a complete turnaround. As is the open criticism of the state of the dikes. Thirty per cent of the flood defences are qualitatively substandard.

Before the Advisory Board on Water can issue any advice, you have to explore the field to keep abreast of the various issues at hand, what the advantages and disadvantages of current policy are and how to get to where you want to go. The Board does its work very thoroughly, so Willem Alexander had no objection to speaking as Chair of the Advisory Board on Water. And if, in so doing, he speaks out against current policy, then that can upset things in terms of ministerial accountability, but it happens.”


Overbeek saw the prince every six weeks at the meetings of the Advisory Board on Water. The meeting on 16 April was the last to be chaired by Willem Alexander because as king, he may not hold any other positions.

Once the supervisory committee had fulfilled its task, D’Angremond said to Willem Alexander: “If ever you have a concrete question for us, do contact us. And if there is anything we feel you absolutely must be informed about, we will let you know.” Over the last ten years, that happened maybe three or four times, he says.

Savenije, who last travelled with the prince in 2001, when they visited Mozambique to see the effects of the devastating floods, still sends Willem Alexander things occasionally. Conversely, the professor received an invitation to attend the coronation on 30 April.

Although the coronation will mean the end of his chairmanships, it will not end his interest in water. The professors are certain of that. They expect that King Willem Alexander will continue to exercise influence on hydraulic engineering and water management at national level. d’Angremond asks rhetorically: “He is interested, he is knowledgeable enough and can speak with a certain authority. What minister would not listen to the King in that situation?”

Savenije also expects his interest for water to remain evident at international level: “It is an international issue. He visits all kinds of places, meeting plenty of people in the process. He will have something to say there.”

The subjects of state visits will be chosen accordingly, d’Angremond thinks. “I assume that the head of state will have an important say in the matter.”

Jos Wassink is science editor for Delta. 

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