Chinese-American Lu ended up falling for the water sector despite her background in finance, and so much so that she supposedly holds the moniker, sanitation queen.
Love in a time of scarce water
“When you flush the toilet at home do you think about where the water goes?”
Lu Shen, the recently appointed portfolio management unit head for the Central and West Asia Urban and Water Division, is sharp and with a knack for asking questions that throw you off guard. And just as she can quickly fire those questions, so can she also easily pick them up—whether in the form of realizations, opportunities, or interests.
Lu, who studied economics and business administration, made such queries when she was first exposed to a water and sanitation project. Although working for ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department, she soon became fascinated with toilets and the complex system behind it. Now she has been with the urban–water sector for 11 years and counting. To think she’s not an engineer. For her, there is just something fundamental to this simple service that most people take for granted. Urban Sector Group chief Vijay Padmanabhan even jokingly calls her the sanitation queen, she shared. “Because I care about crap,” she deadpanned.
Kidding aside, Lu cares about people. She has been with ADB since graduating from school, rising from the ranks. But somewhere along the way, she opted to take a special leave “to be closer to the people”. It didn’t turn out the way she expected it, though. It was better – she ended up gaining a richer experience, working on water and sanitation across 10 or so countries in South America.
Currently, she’s processing a project in Kyrgyz Republic and handling the administration of a multitranche financing facility for a water supply and sanitation investment program in Azerbaijan. The job can be taxing, to the point that she looks forward to sleep at the end of each day, but she admits there’s no other work or sector she’d rather be in than this.
“Water has really become a convenience for our generation that we don’t really think about it as a privilege.”
Unit Head, Portfolio Management
Is this really your first job after grad school?
Lu: Yes, it was one of those ‘let’s move as far away as possible from Boston’ [laughs]. So I came here as a Young Professional in 2002 and then I ended up in the water sector. Along the way I was with the Private Sector Operations Department where I did my first water project in 2006. That was my first introduction to water and sanitation. I fell in love with the sector. That’s how I started and it has been over 10 years since.
What made you fall in love with the sector?
Lu: Well, for example, between you and me, when you flush the toilet at home do you think about where the water goes?
Lu: Neither did I. Do you understand how the system is so complex yet necessary? It was something that really struck me – that water is not just something that comes when you turn on the faucet. Do you think about it? Do you think about how much work goes into getting the water in to your house and what happens when you flush the toilet, or when you take the shower? What happens to that water? It has really become a convenience for our generation that we don’t really think about it as a privilege. And when you go to places where this is not expected, especially in our line of work, you realize how precious it is.
I have to say, as a non-engineer, this is something you can learn a lot about without having to go to school. Obviously, there are things you need to go to school for to understand the finesse of the system.
Is it a challenge being a non-engineer?
Lu: I believe one person doesn’t have to know everything. But you can always get the resources to help you. The good thing about a place like ADB is you can find expertise if you need it. I’m comfortable not knowing everything about water because I understand the most important aspect of it, which is the financial aspect.
As a deviation to this conversation, since I’m also interested in solid waste management, I went to this training in the Netherlands for three weeks on solid waste. To prepare for the course, we had homework on thermodynamics, with a review of physics and chemistry. So you can imagine the technical elements of those topics. I emailed them saying I shouldn’t go to this course because, quite frankly, the last time I touched a chemistry book was back in high school. I’m not sure how much value I can put into this course or how much I’m going to learn because I’ll be lost. They said don’t worry, just come, it will be fine. To cut the story short, at the end of the course, I learned a huge amount; but I also realized that what matters at the end of the day is financing—of anything. Be it water, be it landfills, and be it treatment plants. What people care about and what governments or our clients care about is how much is it going to cost them and what will they get out of it?
So yes, the technical aspect is extremely important because you have to pick the right technology for the right scenario. But our role is to also find the right solution for the right price. I’m comfortable with not knowing everything. I just want to be able to know enough to know when it’s not correct.
How long have you been working under Central and West Asia?
Lu: I’ve been here since 2013, and before this I worked with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for three years. That was my special leave without pay. So in a way I worked for a different organization from 2008 to 2011, where I was also under their water and sanitation sector.
It was a fortuitous accident why I worked for them. I initially took a special leave without pay to do some NGO work in [Washington] D.C. I wanted to be closer to the people. But I realized the NGO I worked with was very much constrained by their inability to find funding. That’s all they cared about, not the strategy nor the projects. So that’s another privilege here in ADB that we don’t have to think about. We are never facing serious money constraints. We should be caring more about what to do, rather than worrying where our budget is going to come from next year.
I did this for about five months before I decided to quit. But since I had already taken a two-year leave from ADB, I didn’t want to go back. By chance, I found this job because I was doing a water and sanitation project. There was this position available for a financial specialist for IDB’s water sector. I went in completely green, without any knowledge of Spanish. It turned out they spoke Spanish along the corridors. I was very lucky, because I was overconfident! Now I speak Spanish. I worked in Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname…
How different is it to work there compared to doing development in Asia?
Lu: There’s less willingness to pay in Latin America—even less than Asia. They think water is from God, so you shouldn’t pay for something that God provides. They also didn’t like private sector intervention because they’ve had a pretty bad experience, such as in Bolivia. It’s a lot of cultural things.
Water sector aside, why are you also interested in solid waste management?
Lu: Manila! Have you ever been to Tondo? Have you ever stepped on the landfills? We used to go there before for volunteer work. A friend of mine knew about Tondo because she knows this Italian priest who ran a congregation there. But before Manila, I didn’t know much about landfills. It’s one of those eye-opening experiences when you realize that there are generations – and not just one generation – but generations of people who have lived on or by the landfill. Including kids. The average lifespan was something ridiculous, like 35 or 38 years old. We used to go quite frequently on the weekends to bring food for the kids. And you realize that these are kids who have lived their whole lives on the landfill, with some of them never having seen anything else. This was my first introduction to landfills and you realize that this is not just singular to Manila. This is the case in India, Cambodia, and Brazil and others, so managing waste was another thing for me that just came about naturally.
What has been some of your proudest moments here in ADB?
Lu: I think bringing in the Gates Foundation. We brought in the $15 million. That was when I came back from IDB. I think one of the things IDB does better is engaging with nontraditional donors and partners. I came back whining and complaining about the fact that ADB needs to do more, and at that time Amy [Leung] was the head of the Water Communities of Practice, so I went to her saying we needed to do more. At IDB they were partnering with Pepsi, Coke, and with Gates. Lucky for me Amy was very supportive. In December 2012 we went to the US to talk to different donors. Gates was our first stop. Three months later, they came back saying, ‘Here’s $15 million. Go do sanitation work.’