Photograph by Heine Pedersen, Rolex Awards
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Makoto Murase developed rainwater collection tanks now used in scores of office buildings and homes.

Photograph by Heine Pedersen, Rolex Awards

Reining in the Rain

Makoto Murase pioneered urban rainwater recycling in Japan. Now he's spreading efforts into freshwater-starved regions.

Where many see rain as a nuisance, Japan’s Makoto Murase sees a freshwater resource for millions.

The World Health Organization estimates nearly 800 million people lack access to safe, clean drinking water. In Bangladesh alone, nearly 40 million people in rural villages are forced to either buy water or spend hours fetching it from polluted ponds.

But Murase, a world authority on rainwater recycling, is aiming to change that.

Educated as a pharmacologist, Murase is a former career civil servant who worked in a municipal environmental protection department in Sumida City, a district in east Tokyo where sewers frequently flooded during the rainy season. In the early 1980s, he pioneered the recycling of urban rainwater when he designed a water recovery system that collected, filtered, and stored rainwater in large underground holding tanks, easing flooded sewers and providing a resource used for irrigation, toilets, washing, and drinking.

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Murase shows off a plaster tank that can store over 1,300 gallons of rainwater.

An early system installed in Tokyo’s Sumo Stadium proved so successful that the city eventually required underground rainwater tanks for all new buildings, including the Skytree, Japan's tallest. Over a thousand Tokyo buildings now harvest and recycle rainwater, and Murase is affectionately known as "Dr. Skywater."

"I decided to call rainwater ‘sky water’ after learning the wisdom of our ancestors, who believed it was a gift from heaven and called it sky water with great respect,'' he says.

Since retiring from his city job, Murase started the Institute for Sky Water Harvesting and Skywater Bangladesh, a social enterprise he hopes will bring low-cost rainwater collection systems to the country’s rural villages. The Rolex Laureate has also published a book, Sky Water: Rain in Japan and Around the World.

“My main concern is the bacteria, arsenic, and salt levels in rural areas,’’ he says. “Too many communities have a drinking water crisis. They have no access to safe drinking water, or they have to fetch water from ponds every day. Many people are too poor to pay for water, or they live in decentralized housing where no pipeline systems can be installed. Sky water is free.”

Murase says his rainwater harvesting and storage systems could provide safe drinking water to millions in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines, where monsoon rains could provide ample, storable supplies.

“My dream is to solve drinking crises everywhere,’’ he says."We are living beneath the same sky."

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnerships with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.