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Enrique Lomnitz: Mexico's rain man

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    Enrique Lomnitz, director of the non-governmental International Renewable Resources Institute-Mexico.
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Imagine turning on the water at the sink to wash your hands or dishes. Dry. Next day, nothing. A week later, same thing.

This is how millions live in Mexico City, with some 36 percent of households without access to a constant daily flow from their faucets. As Mexico plans billion-dollar projects to slake this megacity, Enrique Lomnitz looks up and sees a simpler, and much cheaper, solution: rainwater.

"We see rainwater as a superabundant, renewable resource that we have here," says Mr. Lomnitz, the executive director of Isla Urbana, which builds and educates locals about rainwater harvesting systems.

Specifically, the group helps construct systems on rooftops to capture the water, which is then stored in cisterns and purified for domestic use. Local plumbers are trained to help fix any problems. Lomnitz came up with the idea while studying sustainable housing projects at the Rhode Island School of Design. Visiting communities in his native Mexico, he would hear that roads were getting paved and electricity turned on, but access to water was far spottier.

So Lomnitz moved to Mexico City's Ajusco, in the shadow of a volcanic mountain that is the highest point in the area, with seven others on his staff, and began building harvesting systems. The work landed him on a reality television show this fall in Mexico about social activism; last year he was a finalist for the BBC World Challenge project.

So far the staff of mostly 20-somethings has reached nearly 700 households, but their goal spans well beyond the hardware. "We want rainwater not to be a niche activity or something limited to the very poor or marginalized or ideological hippy crowd," Lomnitz says, "but something that is as day to day as anything else."

– Sara Miller Llana, Mexico City

Next: Akiko Naka: Japan's high-tech recruiter

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