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Engineers band together to improve sanitation, infrastructure abroad

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There have been doctors and journalists. Now meet Engineers Without Borders, who are committed to improving the everyday lives of people in developing countries.

SAN FRANCISCO -- There have been doctors and journalists. Now there are Engineers Without Borders who are committed to improving the everyday lives of people in developing countries.

Presenting during the TEDxNASA innovation event during the NASA IT Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday, volunteer Ural Yal said that he became an engineer and a builder because he likes to "find solutions to practical problems." Thus, he found Engineers Without Borders to be a great outlet.

The process from the concept of a project to completion can take considerable time, but the steps are straightforward. First, a community or NGO makes a request to the national parent organization. From there, a team of engineers extensively research the project. If approved, then each chapter throughout the United States scrambles to prove it has the right skills and resources. The selected chapter must then make a 5-year commitment to the project. Usually, engineers will design prototypes for the projects at their local chapters after flying out to evaluate the situation on the project site.

Each chapter does most of their own fundraising and labor for a particular project. When abroad, the teams purchase and use local materials -- no flying any expensive parts from the United States or elsewhere. Not only is this to keep money in the local economies, but also so that if something needs to be replaced, locals can easily buy the part from the original seller.

Currently, Engineers Without Borders retains 1,300 student and 750 professional volunteers. The organization has partnered with 240 communities in 40 countries, and 145 teams have conducted 180 trips by 145 teams.

To date, 12,000 volunteers overall have partnered with 1.5 million people around the world.

Some of those projects include bridges in Honduras, solar power systems for schools in Haiti, and latrines in El Salvador.

Many of the projects often deal with building filtration systems and access to clean water. Shannon Valenti, a volunteer with a background in international development and economics, recounted a project in Tanzania. The objective was to build several storage tanks, including that held 15,000 gallons of water.

Although there are sometimes some obstacles to getting materials to the site -- one tank had to come via canoe -- the end results are definitely worth the trouble. Prior to completion, residents of the village had to walk hours a day to get access to fresh water. Now they don't have to walk more than 100 yards.

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Rachel King

Rachel King is a staff writer for ZDNet. Previously she worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in San Francisco.