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How many of you may have heard about a manual water pump looking like equipment called a Gulper. My guess is that a majority of you have not. At the same time my guess is that most of you, being trained and practicing Environmental Health Professionals are aware of challenges affecting households living in the Low Income Areas of cities in Malawi, including Blantyre, when it comes to constructing new pit latrines, never mind whether improved or unimproved.

Although as professional EHOs our interest would be improved latrines, availability of land to construct a new latrine, especially after the current (usually the first) one is filled up with shit, is one major challenge affecting these poor households. As such some households engage in different desperate solutions which include draining the sludge into river bodies. Boy! what a nuisance to public health and the ecosystem in general.

A Gulper has come a solution to this problem. A Gulper is mechanical equipment that operates like a hand pump (intrinsic), and is used to pump out feces from a filled pit latrine. It is also operated (extrinsic) like a hand pump with feces coming out of a Gulper outlet. Currently a Gulper is showing a potential of offering solutions to problems of land for construction of new latrines in densely populated Low Income Areas of Malawian cities, hence solving impending public health problems at households which would arise from having nowhere to defecate, prompting household members to practice open defecation. Damn open defecation, we need Open Defecation Free communities!

Water For People, working with Blantyre Water Board in Blantyre’s Low Income Areas, and Water Aid, working with Lilongwe Water Board in Lilongwe’s Low Income Areas are helping promote the use of a Gulper by interested individuals to empty filled pit latrines at a fee. This is part of the new animal in the Environmental health block ‘Sanitation Marketing’. With my experience in Blantyre especially in areas around Ndirande and Mabayani, where we have two entrepreneurs involved in pit emptying services using a Gulper, there is no doubt that households who had nowhere to dig a new pit latrine have found these services very handy and welcome.

I have vivid memories of a family in Chilobwe, where we went to test a new equipment which never worked any way, Crap, how desperate families can be especially heads of households, when the whole family has nowhere to defecate because the latrine is full and there is nowhere to construct a new one.  It is  no doubt that a Gulper has come to solve the problem of land which still affects many household members’ in Low Income Areas.
But, how many of you have witnessed a pit emptying exercise in progress. I have, and many of my colleagues in Water For People have. Ask how many of us who have witnessed if we would love to have that sojourn again. For yours truly, No! and Big No! as a matter of fact. I guess very few would love a repeat. Why! Remember I said the Gulper operates and is operated as a hand pump. What happens at a water hand pump. Surely some spillages of water around. The same applies with a Gulper. But this time its feces. This is Public Health concern. Plenty of contamination of the operators with fecal matter.

My point is, as far as a Gulper has been welcomed as a solution to public health problems associated with lack of space for constructing a new latrine, the technology in its current state poses its own public health problems to the operators. One public health problem solved, another one created. It’s a relief that Water For People staff have realized this problem and are working with University of Malawi and other stakeholders to help minimize spillage of feces and contamination of operatives during ‘Gulping’. The solutions will however take some time before being realized. But currently Gulping still continues, exposing public health hazards to the operatives. I believe that this is just one example of many other operations happening within our Environmental Health realm which are associated with many public health risks.
My question and possible point of discussion: As MEHA shall we have any role in such issues and how? My guess is, definitely, MEHA will need to be poking its long nose into this. Operationalization?  That is the question.

By Michael Chimaliza
Public Health Specialist, Water For People Malawi
Executive Member, MEHA
MPS Env. Sc. (New York), BSc Env Health, Dip. Pub Health (UNIMA), Dip HP Ed (Tanzania)