Like a futuristic fountain soaring to the heavens, the Tokyo Sky Tree – the world’s tallest broadcast tower – transcends the angular skyline of Japan’s capital. Opened on 22 May, the Sky Tree defines not only the latest in telecommunications – but also in urban renewal and sustainability.
Thanks to the vision of 2002 Rolex Associate Laureate Makoto Murase, who now goes by the name ‘Dr Skywater’, the Sky Tree is a masterpiece in water conservation, harvesting the sometimes torrential Tokyo downpours for reuse about the city. Rainfall that falls on the 634-metre structure and its viewing platforms is channelled into a basement tank holding 2635 tonnes of water, then re-used to irrigate rooftop gardens, in toilets and as an emergency supply.
For more than two decades Dr Skywater has energetically campaigned to awake the urban world to the appalling waste of one of its most essential resources, pure rainwater, and the necessity to see it as a blessing, not as a waste disposal problem. In his own municipality of Sumida City he successfully altered the regulations to require all large, new buildings to harvest amamizu, a Japanese word that connotes both sky water and sweet water. So far more than 500 buildings have installed his system in Sumida alone, conserving a total of 19,000 tonnes of fresh water. Across greater Tokyo more than a thousand buildings, ranging from city halls to baseball stadiums to government offices, now harvest and reuse ‘sky water’.
At the opposite end of the developmental scale, in rural Bangladesh, he is seeking to distribute low-tech sky water harvesting technology to spare families from the epidemic of cancers and water-borne infections caused by their use of contaminated surface and groundwater. His concrete jar and roof-chain system is low-cost, clean and affordable even for poor families.
Rainwater is collected from the house roof, using a chain for it to run down instead of a downpipe. As it starts to rain, the chain is left to hang free, to drain off dust from the roof. When the water runs clear the chain is placed in the mouth of a large concrete jar, which it fills with clean rainwater. The jar is then sealed and water drawn off only by a tap. This water is completely clean, without the microbial or arsenic contamination that affects surface and well-water in Bangladesh.
Manufacturing of the roof-chain system began in April this year following extensive local and international publicity. “Our hope is that amamizu innovation can make happiness for all by solving the water crisis in Bangladesh,” Dr Skywater says.
The blows inflicted on Japan by the great 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident have inspired Dr Skywater to fresh efforts to demonstrate how tomorrow’s citizens can live more sustainably and independently. In the majestic shadow of sacred Mt Fuji he has redesigned his own home as ‘amamizu gotemba’ – a dwelling for a future time when oil scarcity and climate change may shake global society to its foundations. Here he collects skywater in an 18 cubic-metre tank, gravity-feeding it around the home for drinking, cooking, bathing, toilets, watering the traditional Japanese garden and growing fish, and through a series of ponds and seeps for flood control. Electricity is supplied by solar power.
“I learned many lessons from the Fukushima nuclear power accident and tsunami,” he reflects. “We should seek local independence in water resources and energy as a way to mitigate damage from natural disasters and promote sustainable development for the next generation.”
He says the Rolex Award has helped build networks for Sky Water Harvesting across government, NGOs, businesses and academic institutions globally. “Around the world I have always been introduced as a Rolex Awards Associate Laureate. It has always encouraged me to make amamizu innovation.”
Of his achievements, Mr Wahid Ullah, the Country Representative of People For Rainwater – Bangladesh – says “Our people in coastal areas had no access to safe drinking water – but nowadays they are hopeful of getting it. Dr. Skywater has worked very hard to implement his water harvesting system in these areas. He will remain forever in the heart of the people of the coastal areas of Bangladesh for his hard work and great contribution on Sky Water Harvesting in Bangladesh.”
From the soaring spire of the Tokyo Sky Tree, to the sustainable home of the future, to a low-cost clean water supply for millions of poor families, the fertile mind of Dr Skywater is ever in quest of new and better ways to make use of the precious water which falls so freely from the skies – and which, in modern society, so often is allowed to run to waste.
By Julian Cribb