Q & A with Water For People’s Eleanor Allen

In July 2015, Eleanor Allen traded her job running a global water business to take up the reins at a global water nonprofit. Deeply affected by an early-career Peace Corps experience, Allen has always looked for ways to be most impactful with her life. Now, as Water For People’s CEO she’s part of changing lives across Latin America, Africa and India through the organization’s Everyone Forever model, where the endgame is sustainable, safe water and sanitation for every home, clinic and school in partner districts. Headwaters Senior Editor Jayla Poppleton interviewed Allen about her role in advancing an organizational strategy to meet the most basic of all human needs.  

HW: Your website states that 1.8 billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe water and 2.4 billion lack access to adequate sanitation, that women and children spend more than 4 hours walking for water each day, and that more than 840,000 people die each year from water-related diseases. By comparison, our water-related public health concerns in the United States sound like “first-world problems.” Can you provide additional perspective on what it means for so many people to lack access to these basic services?

EA: Imagine you had to walk up to several miles to get water, bring it home, and maybe boil it—you’ve just lost a few hours. The huge impact, particularly on women and children, is that’s time you’re unable to care for your family, you’re unable to work, or you can’t go to school. Giving people time to develop their families and their own economic prosperity is huge for the global economy, and that leads me to health. Getting people safe water provides a big boost in public health. If you’re not dying from water-borne disease, then you might be sick. Then you can’t work. This is a huge drain on productivity. We know that there is a five-fold return on investment for every dollar invested in water and sanitation on the economy for the boost in productivity. Children in developing countries have to work really hard to get an education, especially for girls, because they’re either walking for water, or they’re not going to school because they have other work to do or they have their period and the schools don’t have toilets. This all changes dramatically when these basic fundamentals of life—water and toilets—are met.

HW: Water For People works in nine different countries, impacting 4 million lives. How did you choose these specific regions?

EA: Five years ago, in 2011, we changed our strategy and created Everyone Forever. We went down from 40 countries to the nine countries we’re in with the mission to get sustainable water and sanitation services, forever, to every family, clinic and school in the districts where we work. We chose these nine countries because these were the places where we had the best relationships with governments, which we felt was critical to our success as we began creating service authorities. Getting everyone access to services by building the infrastructure is one challenge. Having the services last forever is definitely the harder part, and it is fully dependent on the local districts and the government—not Water For People. We help enable this shift to local empowerment and ownership by setting up local partnerships, having the government buy in, and developing the institutions that are the equivalent of municipal water and sanitation utilities.

HW: When you’re working to increase access to “improved” water or sanitation, what does “improved” mean in practice?

EA: Improved means you don’t have to walk to a river, creek or other “natural” water source with your jerry cans to collect water. You either walk to a community hand pump or a community tap or you actually have a tap in your house. It’s taking the water from its natural state into some sort of infrastructure to get it closer to people and hopefully with some treatment, when required, to make it safe to drink. Our ideal is getting everyone a household connection. We’re not there by any means but that’s our ideal.

HW: What is the benchmark for establishing what constitutes “safe” drinking water across all of these varied locales?

EA: Every country has different water quality standards as well as a different standard to define the distance from each house that is reasonable “access” to an improved water source. It would be much simpler to have a global standard! We follow country systems and standards. Having safe water can be achieved in two ways: One, by delivering it through a system so that it is safe from the community tap/household tap/community well, like we have here in the U.S., or two, by assuming that people will take it from the community tap/household tap/community well and treat it at home using filters or chlorine to make it safe. The second method opens up more potential for recontamination if the home filters no longer work, or if it is treated then transferred to a dirty container, etc.

HW: How have you personally seen lives transformed as a result of gaining access to improved drinking water and sanitation?

EA: There are so many stories. I specifically remember one time after a community water system was inaugurated in the Dominican Republic, a woman, Doña Lucia, who I knew well, came up to me and gave me an egg. She said, “Elena, we are so happy as our lives have changed forever. Thank you. This is all I can give you to thank you.” It really changed their entire lives. And it was the best egg I ever had!

Toilets are pretty amazing and life-changing too. Especially for women when they no longer have to risk rape and ridicule when open defecating and have the dignity and safety of their own toilet.

HW: Water For People makes a long-term commitment to monitoring its projects. Do you measure reduced rates of illness as part of that?

EA: We have really robust monitoring criteria for water and sanitation supply and usage. We measure access, level of service, water quality, reliability, and many other things that are pretty germane to water and sanitation. Our task is to transfer the monitoring and evaluation from our local employees to the municipal employees that we’re training.

A more difficult task is how to measure social indicators that can be linked to safe water and sanitation, like improved health and better school attendance. We have dozens of metrics, but we do not measure these types of changes. We do know anecdotally that there is socio-economic progress in our communities once they have reliable services. We have also been monitoring the connection between malnutrition and poor water quality, because if your belly is full of parasites, it is hard to get the food to you instead of the parasites. If kids get safe water and parasites go away, they’re in more school and they’re able to pay better attention and have a better chance of success.  

HW: How does Water For People transfer technologies and systems developed or refined in the U.S. to the communities in which you work?

EA: The technologies that we use are really basic and they have to be locally available. There’s no silver-bullet technology, although a lot of people would love it if there was! The real solution is setting up the systems and the governance and the institutions. Most technologies that we’re using come from the countries we work in. That’s the most sustainable, practical and cheapest way to build our systems. Most of the ideas come from where we work now, too, because our engineers are mostly local. We definitely have a direct line back to all of the engineering firms in the U.S. that support us. They were our founders and they are still our partners. I come from these roots too! When we’re on the cutting edge of design in our countries (e.g., fluoride removal in water or membrane systems for latrine pit dewatering) and our local engineers do not have the experience or know-how, we can tap back into our resources here in the U.S.

HW: Water For People promotes co-investing and co-financing by local entities. Tell us about why this local buy-in is important to project success.

EA: Across all of our nine countries’ programs together, the average that the municipalities co-invest in the capital phase to construct the systems is about 35 percent. In our experience when people co-invest they have skin in the game and are more committed to the success of the programs. For operational expenses the service authorities set rates that cover their costs, and typically the systems are metered. We can help them do this using a rate model that we developed called “At What Cost” that helps the communities develop the right rate for their system.

HW: The U.N. Sustainable Development Goal No. 6, SDG6, released in January 2016 aims to achieve universal availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation services by 2030. Is this doable, and what do you think it will take to get there?

EA: The rate of investment globally right now is around $10 billion a year in water and sanitation. And it’s $50 to $100 billion per year to get to SDG6. That is five to ten times the investment we are making today between government, aid, philanthropy and corporations. This additional funding needs to come from national governments through higher taxes or reprioritization of national funding, and aid needs to increase. The money is out there in the world—we spend that much on Black Friday every year! My belief is that money needs to be reallocated for this purpose, to finally solve this crisis. And 2030 with SDG6 gives us a great target to shoot for.

HW: What keeps you personally motivated in the face of such a daunting task?

EA: I am energized every day when I see the progress we are making. Our work is complicated and difficult, and on some days I wish we could make progress faster, but I have peace of mind knowing we are doing the right thing. And we have proof that we are making progress to help solve a crisis that is solvable.

Hear more from Eleanor Allen by tuning in to her June 2016 TEDx Talk on YouTube.

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