A river of innovations changing the lives of great cities and the poorest of the poor is flowing from the visionary ideas of Makoto Murase – today known in his native Japan and beyond as “Dr Skywater” – who was chosen as an Associate Laureate of the 2002 Rolex Awards for his farsighted work in storing and recycling the rain that falls on cities. Dr Skywater’s imaginative methods hold potential solutions to help alleviate a crisis that will likely confront the world within 30 years.

What has been the progress in adopting “skywater” principles in Japan since you received your Rolex Award in 2002?
After receiving the Rolex Award, I continued to be involved in Sky Water Harvesting (SWH) projects in Sumida City, Tokyo [where he was an employee of the municipality], and as Secretary General of People for Rainwater, a not-for-profit organization, with the aim of integrating skywater harvesting into the fabric of a sustainable society.

It is now a Sumida City development regulation that buildings with sites of over 500 square metres, must install SWH systems for flood control, water conservation and for an emergency reserve. There are now over 1,000 big new buildings with skywater harvesting systems in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

I also established Rainwater Networks in Japan (RNJ) in 2008 to promote storage, infiltration and usage of rainwater for solving the water crisis in other urban areas around Japan.

The Tokyo Sky Tree will be the tallest broadcasting tower in the world, at 634 metres when it opens in May 2012. It will also have the largest skywater harvesting system for flood control, water conservation – rainwater will be used for toilets, green roofs and cooling of solar cells in summer – and an emergency water supply. I have been closely involved in the design of its water systems.

Even today most people who live in urban areas think of rainwater as a dirty and dangerous nuisance, which should be discharged into drains immediately. I wish to change this misunderstanding by introducing them to skywater harvesting, in the hope that they, too, will look up to the sky and be thankful. This is my mission.

You have extended your skywater work to Bangladesh where millions of people are being poisoned by arsenic in their drinking water.
I started an SWH project in the coastal areas of Bangladesh in 2000 in order to help solve the drinking water crisis, which is caused by arsenic, iron, salt and bacterial contamination of groundwater and pond water used by households.

The 4,400 litre concrete ring water storage tank. Photo courtesy of Makoto Murase.

I developed a 4,400 litre concrete tank which can supply drinking water during the dry season for a household of six people. We installed over 100 of these tanks, with the beneficiaries making a down payment and then paying the full cost within a year. This was successful as the all beneficiaries paid back. But we had a problem, in that it is difficult for very poor people to afford these payments, so I decided to develop a much cheaper tank. This was achieved by using a Thai technology in the form of a giant concrete water jar.

I named this low-cost tank amamizu, which has two meanings in Japanese. The first is “Skywater” and the second is “Sweet Water”. In October 2011, I completed a factory to manufacture amamizu at Morreganj, in Bagerhat Prefecture. The goal of skywater harvesting in Bangladesh is to provide safe and sweet drinking water to several million people in the coastal areas by installing amamizu. My plans are to develop a local amamizu industry in the future.

Carrying amamizu tank by rickshaw, Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Makoto Murase.

So far several thousand skywater systems have been installed by United Nations and non-government agencies as donations. Beneficiaries pay only 10-20 per cent of the total installation cost and the U.N. and NGOs cover 80-90 per cent. Many of these installations are model plants. Basically, the funding support is for three years – but further monitoring is needed to ensure the project is sustainable.

What now needs to be done to make the project sustainable?
In March 2011, I started working on the sociological aspects of adopting skywater harvesting with JICA [Japanese International Cooperation Agency]. We need more masons to make the jars and more factories. Also we need to raise more funds to make the social business sustainable. I hope to establish an amamizu fund in the near future. Also I will open a training centre to provide masons with professional skills. I am considering a licensing system.

Casting of amamizu tank, Bangladesh Photo courtesy of Makoto Murase

Do you plan to extend the skywater technology to other countries affected by polluted drinking water?
Sure! If amamizu social business can succeed in Bangladesh, I would like to transfer not only technology, but also the sustainable social system of amamizu to other countries in the Asian Monsoon region, such as India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines, Myanmar and Nepal, where there are the same water issues. I would like to contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goal on drinking water.

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) warns there may be acute water shortages for both cities and food production in 20-30 years: can skywater help to alleviate this problem?
I too am worried about the water crisis in urban areas and the future food crisis. The U.N. predicts the global population will reach 9 billion in 2050, and 60-70 per cent of the population will live in urban areas. But the availability of fresh water is limited. Artificial desalinization systems for seawater are not sustainable, because of the looming oil crisis.

Skywater is the result of a natural, worldwide desalinization system. It is a sustainable water resource. There are countless taps of safe drinking water in the sky, available to everyone!

How did the Rolex Award help your project to progress?
The Rolex Award has helped me to form skywater networks among administrators, NGOs, academics and citizens, not only in Bangladesh, but all around the world.

Interview by Julian Cribb

Learn more about Makoto Murase

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