GroundBreakers is thrilled to feature Eleanor Allen, the CEO of Water For People, on this week’s Portrait of a GroundBreaker Series.
Eleanor Allen is the CEO of Water for People, an international nonprofit helping develop high-quality drinking water and sanitation services sustained by strong communities, governments, and businesses. Water For People strives to reach “Everyone Forever” in the geographies where it operates. The organization is dedicated to community ownership and leadership, and is working towards structural systems change at national levels to ensure sustainable water services. Eleanor is passionate about the power of water as the foundation for social progress and comes to Water For People with extensive experience as a water engineer and business executive for global water consulting companies. On this week’s feature of GroundBreakers’ Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series, our discussion with Eleanor ranged from her experience in the Peace Corps to the importance of supporting a new generation of water professionals globally, with gender parity.
What is your background and how did it lead to becoming the CEO of Water for People?
I’ve always been connected to Water For People through my volunteer service. I started my career in water consulting and at that time was a volunteer for Water For People. I was also a Peace Corps volunteer early in my career. I’ve always been interested in work outside of the U.S and have lived in various countries in Latin America and in Europe and have worked all over the world.
As an engineer, my technical specialty is water and wastewater treatment plant design. I designed large treatment plants for cities around the world and later moved into business operations. I was running the global water business for Arcadis when I saw the opening for the CEO role at Water For People. I wasn’t actively looking for a job but knew it was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. The position for me represented coming full circle in my career by returning to international development. I had succeeded in moving up the career ladder in consulting, but the higher I rose the less I felt I was making a difference in the world. I no longer felt I was helping improve the quality of life for people, which was my career aspiration. So I made the change and went from big infrastructure with little impact to little infrastructure with big impact! At Water For People, we work in rural and peri-urban (slums) areas, which means we are solving very challenging programs and significantly improving daily living conditions.
How has your time in the Peace Corps impacted your work?
It changed my life. I learned how most of the people in the world live. My job as a volunteer was helping the rural communities where I lived design and build rural their water systems. Before Peace Corps I was a hydraulic engineer. I became interested in water quality engineering during my Peace Corps experience. For the first time in my life, I experienced death of people that I knew well. They were dying because they drank contaminated water. My neighbor Maria’s death (she was three) was a pivotal moment for me. I felt a call to action. I decided I could make a difference by helping prevent more unnecessary deaths. So after the Peace Corps I got a master’s degree in civil/environmental engineering specializing in water quality, and I entered the world of water and wastewater treatment plant design. I did this for many years and loved it.
“At Water For People, we’re focused on not staying in a community longer than necessary… it’s important that the water service provider we train can maintain a high and consistent level of service before we exit… This strategy is about transferring technology and knowledge to communities, so they can provide sustainable services on their own.”
Who are some of the people and mentors who have inspired you in your work?
I’ve been very fortunate to have had incredible mentors along the way. It was sometimes a hard journey as a female engineer because I was often the only woman on the team or in the room. My former boss Maddy was an inspirational mentor. After I had my first child, I was convinced I had made a colossal career mistake. I was having a hard time balancing work and life (and am the sole breadwinner — my husband is the stay-at-home parent for our two boys) while trying to earn my stripes as a competent design engineer. I was working with only older men at the time and never felt good enough. We often misunderstood each other. Maddy helped me see the root cause of my feeling of not being worthy. Some of the men didn’t realize that I was taking their words personally when they were really trying to give me advice. When I figured out their intent, and that we all wanted the same outcomes, and that it wasn’t personal, everything changed. I adapted my communication style and mindset, which in turn allowed me to form positive relationships with the same people that I thought were trying to convince me to change my career. It was revolutionary for me! In truth, they were making an earnest effort to help me learn. Once I embraced this opportunity, I learned a lot! I also gained confidence in my own abilities and saw the positive and rewarding sides of a career in water quality engineering and remembered why I had chosen this path. It was the right career for me after all.
Bill was another important mentor to me during many phases of my career. I called him the “VOR,” the Voice of Reason. We started having a monthly mentoring calls many years ago. It was at a stressful time in my career. I was working in project management with a very demanding client. There were continuous deadlines and compliance issues that we had to meet. I would have my monthly call with Bill and he would inquire about the current crises in my life. Then he would very calmly talk me through them. He would ask questions like, “What situations would you like to rewind? What could you do differently next time? Why didn’t this work?” It was so helpful to have him walk me through and step by step unpack the experiences, learn from mistakes, and move forward. He is retired now, but I still call him for advice from time to time, and he always helps me think through problems and solve them in a logical and calming way.
How is your work adapted to cultural contexts?
At Water For People, our employees are all local professionals. We don’t employ expats. When we organize and lead group trainings (e.g., health, hygiene, water system operations, maintenance, business plan development for small water/sanitation entrepreneurs, etc.) in the communities where we work, we strive to have gender parity in the classes. We typically are training informal workers and giving them new job opportunities in the water field. These jobs didn’t exist before.
It’s also important for us to figure out who the informal leaders are in the communities and give them the chance to move into more formal leadership roles through water/sanitation development. It can be very empowering!
The employees in our office in Denver are back office support (fundraising, marketing, finance, human resources, global program support, and me!). We haven’t forgotten our roots in the US water/wastewater sector. We are still strongly connected to the American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation through our over 50 volunteer committees, and many companies in the engineering and construction industry partner with Water For People. In addition, our World Water Corps volunteers support our local teams in our nine countries by providing technical training/expertise (when requested) if the task at hand is above and beyond the local knowledge base. We understand the subtleties of local contexts and cultures because our employees are from the areas where we work. This is part of our sustainability model, and knowledge transfer is critical to changing the systems in which we work so there is long-term success for a better future. And it is working.
“We are also focused on equity and inclusion in the leadership roles where we work…Getting women into leadership roles is very important in addition to creating a new generation of male and female water professionals. Women often know more about their local water resources, and care more about sanitation, than men.”
How has climate change impacted the work of Water for People?
We are seeing more extreme weather — frequent floods and droughts. In some locations we are experiencing increasing water scarcity. Water supply is being lost in the Andes, for example. We’re seeing more flooding in African countries, so we try to build more resilient infrastructure. We’re also losing groundwater sources and must go to deeper aquifers in some locations. Water resource management is now part of our comprehensive planning efforts to ensure we have adequate water supply long-term.
What are the intersections of women’s rights and water and sanitation?
There are enormous intersections. Where there is not adequate water service, women and girls have a disproportionate burden of walking to fetch water for their families. Two-thirds of schools in low- and middle-income countries don’t have water or toilets, which means that many girls drop out in middle school, when they hit puberty and get their period, because there is no place to change their pads. Providing everyone — every family, clinic, and school — high quality, lasting water and sanitation services, in the communities where we work, is our objective. Then they don’t have to wonder where they’ll get water from each day, whether it is safe to drink, or where or when they’ll be able to go to the bathroom. These basic services protect human health and the environment and improve the quality of life.
What is your vision for Water For People?
Our vision is a world where every person has access to reliable and safe water and sanitation services. There are still 2.1 billion people globally without safe water and 4.5 billion without adequate sanitation. The good news is that these are problems that have solutions! We are solving these very problems, one district at a time, and our model is working. When we reach Everyone in a district, we typically add a new district. Currently we are in 35 districts and have reached 3.3 million people with sustainable services in our nine countries. Our goal is 4 million by 2021. We are also scaling our model to increase our impact by having other organizations replicate Everyone Forever in other districts, and by helping national governments replicate the model at the country level in four of our nine countries. Our ultimate goal is to help get our countries to full coverage for water and sanitation. And it is possible.
Providing lasting quality water and sanitation services includes an exit strategy for Water For People. Our exit is possible when we have adequately transferred technology and knowledge to communities so they no longer need our support. We monitor this progress through our Sustainable Services Checklist, and we exit districts when the level of service remains consistently high. Many other organizations doing water projects don’t have exit strategies, nor do they build sufficient capacity locally for adequate operations and maintenance of the infrastructure — a hallmark of our model. Unfortunately, these communities must rely on the services and subsidies of others long-term. And this isn’t just a problem for low- and middle-income countries. This is a huge challenge in the U.S. right now as the government funding is decreasing and our water infrastructure is in dire need of repair. The investment that is needed to properly maintain our infrastructure isn’t available. We do not to repeat this history in the countries where we work therefore we are building minimal infrastructure and ensuring that the operations are maintenance costs are affordable, that there are people trained to do it, and that the costs and can be covered with local revenue streams (water rates).
I believe that some countries will reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water (SDG 6). The tone at the top does matter — presidents that have water as a national priority are showing faster progress. Political will is critical to success. That creates the path to robust regulatory frameworks, policies, functional governance structures, competent water professionals, and bankable financing plans. Water For People is helping make this happen in the countries where we work.
I am very proud of what we have done and how we are leveraging our expertise and knowledge to increase our impact and help more people. This truly creates social progress by improving health, increasing access to education, and promoting economic opportunity. One of the outcomes that is especially meaningful to me is seeing a whole new generation of people working in the water industry in newly created jobs — and many more women in water than there were in my time. That is so inspiring!