The reach can extend far further, though, and not just at this time of year. And it can leverage your particular engineering skills and know-how. An organization called Engineers Without Borders offers technically trained people (and others) a chance to make a real difference in the developing world.
The U.S. branch, Engineers Without Borders – USA (EWB-USA), Boulder, Colo., started in 2002 and already has tackled about 400 projects in 150–200 different communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, says Cathy Leslie, executive director of the group. While each project is a one-off affair, EWB-USA has developed long-term relationships with many communities, spurring additional projects. So far, around 4,000 people, about 75% of them engineers, have traveled abroad to take part in such efforts, she adds. Some 150 to 200 projects should start in 2009, she expects, and each typically will bring 10 people on-site.
Many of the efforts have heavily relied on the skills of civil and mechanical engineers — after all, places throughout the developing world lack basics such as clean drinking water, adequate sanitation and rudimentary roads and bridges. So, not surprisingly, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers are key sponsors of EWB-USA, as are contractors in those fields like CH2M Hill, CDM and the Washington Division of URS Corp. However, Leslie guesstimates that several hundred chemical engineers also have volunteered; they mainly have focused on water treatment efforts, she believes.
Chemical engineers undoubtedly can play a wider role in improving the life of impoverished people in the developing world. Recognizing that, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) on October 1 entered into a three-year collaboration with EWB-USA, says Tim McCreight, AIChE’s marketing director. The Institute will establish a project grant fund to support specific EWB-USA efforts in which chemical engineering skills can play a role and then will promote involvement by AIChE members on those projects, says Leslie. Volunteers will have to join and work via EWB-USA local chapters, she notes. Leslie would like to see about a dozen AIChE-supported projects in 2009. They two groups also aim to foster cooperation between their student chapters on campuses.
That’s certainly a welcome step. However, many chemical engineers don’t belong to AIChE. If you’re one of them, you still can get involved in projects by joining one of EWB-USA’s local chapters (see www.ewb-usa.org/chapters.php) — or starting a new one. Some of the nearly two dozen new projects already approved but not yet assigned to a chapter (www.ewb-usa.org/OpenProjects.php) include providing a clean water supply in Arombe, Kenya, where local wells and springs are contaminated with pathogens and go dry some portions of the year; finding an alternative to the water pumps and filter that provide dirty drinking water now to Talle Batti, Cambodia; and teaching people in Waspam, Nicaragua, how to manage and maintain rainwater harvesting and waste composting. The local communities suggest the projects — so, they can cover a wide range. For example, Leslie cites past efforts centered on shrimp-harvesting equipment in Indonesia after a tsunami there, and in developing an alternative to a dam to supply irrigation water in Rwanda because the dam would make hippos come dangerously close to a village.
Volunteers can contribute their professional expertise in many ways. For instance, if you’d like to share your knowledge but don’t want to travel, you can review projects before their implementation starts, or serve as a mentor to a local student chapter.
Or, you can get involved in planning, marketing, grant-writing or other such administrative activities at EWB-USA. Of course, you also can put in to go overseas to work at the actual project location. Typically, volunteers spend no more than three months on-site and pay $250 to $500 towards their travel expenses, says Leslie.
Engineers at all stages of their careers, from students to retirees, can contribute to and gain satisfaction from such efforts. Retirees, in particular, may get great value from volunteering by being able to continue putting their technical expertise to good use. For more information, you can contact Leslie directly at email@example.com.
What a great way to leave a lasting legacy.