By Julian Cribb
While the global population has grown threefold since the mid-20th century, our use of fresh water has increased sixfold, threatening major shortages by the 2030s: already, the United Nations warns, 4 billion people worldwide face water scarcity for a month or more each year.
For 35 years, Japanese public servant Makoto Murase – who started to refer to himself as Dr. Skywater to emphasize his philosophy – has campaigned tirelessly for communities large and small to collect the natural bounty of rainfall.
Appalled at the wasted water he saw streaming down the gutters of cities after rain, Dr. Skywater fought for new regulations requiring building owners to store runoff. In 1996, after 14 years of bureaucratic struggle, the building regulations in Sumida City, in the heart of Tokyo, were amended to collect rainfall – for flood control, watering gardens, flushing toilets, building thermal control and fighting fires. This achievement led to a Rolex Associate Laureate Award in 2002.
In 2008, the Sumida City council made water collection mandatory for all major new construction: today 600 buildings – including Japan’s tallest structure, the 634m Sky Tree – store rainwater in huge underground tanks, which could pay for themselves in three to six years. “Sumida City has been changed from Drain City to Rain City,” Dr. Skywater remarks, with satisfaction. In 2014, he presented his concept to the Japanese parliament, which adopted the Sumida rainwater harvesting regulations at national level.
But Dr. Skywater was keenly aware that, while cities squander their water, millions of people in developing countries suffer from lack of access to safe water. Over the years, he has visited Bangladesh on more than 80 occasions and, in 2011, working with local NGOs, he established the Amamizu (“Sweet/Sky Water”) project to manufacture low-cost pottery vessels to supply rainwater for domestic use. In its first phase, more than 3,000 homes and buildings at Morrelganj on the Bangladesh coast have been equipped with his safe, simple rainfall harvest and storage system – the largest being a 150 tonne storage vessel at the main public hospital.
“The goal of this project is to make three happy smiles,” Dr. Skywater says. “The first is to free the community from diarrhea and from having to fetch water. The second one is providing sweet water free from the salinity that affects local well-water. And the third one is to reduce the medical cost of waterborne disease and the family cost of having to buy water.
“Japanese and Bangladeshis live under the same monsoon sky. Japan is blessed with rain. But the origin of almost all our rain comes from Bangladesh, India and the western Pacific. We are all monsoon Asian people. We must help each other and make peace and happiness through friendship.”
He takes great delight in an enterprising Bangladeshi customer of his Amamizu system who used it to open a “Sky Water Café” selling glasses of pure rainwater as drinking water, as well as a rainwater-tea service.
Following his retirement as a public servant, Dr. Skywater has been crusading for water conservation. He founded the NPO – “People for Rainwater”, and the “Institute for Sky Water Harvesting Co. Ltd.”, organized several international rainwater conferences, lectures at universities and provides advice to countries such as France and Germany about installing his systems. He inspired the logo (a man with an upturned umbrella) that adorns the 2015 UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.
His book, Rainwater and You has been translated into 10 languages and his Rain Encyclopaedia was translated into English and published in 2002 after he won his Rolex Award. “I hope these books can make a contribution to solving the emerging global water crisis and promote peace and happiness in communities all around the world,” he explains.
As to his unusual choice of name, he explains: “Since I earned my doctorate in 1996, people had been calling me Dr. Rainwater – but I decided to change this nickname from “Dr. Rainwater” to “Dr. Skywater”.
“I have learned a lot from rain in the last 40 years,” he reflects. “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.
“My dream is to change this misunderstanding by introducing them to sky water harvesting, in the hope that they, too, will look up to the sky and be thankful,” says Dr. Skywater.Learn more about Makoto Murase