Ministers to meet over Northern Ireland water crisis

Ministers in Northern Ireland are to hold an emergency meeting to discuss how to help the 36,000 people who have been without running water for days. Eighty villages and towns have been affected as pipes burst in the thaw. As the first of 160,000 litres of bottled water arrive from Scotland, the Stormont Executive will discuss what further measures can be taken. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said he feels “absolutely let down” by NI Water’s response. The state-owned company, which is the sole provider of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland, said an unprecedented number of leaks caused by the thaw following the long period of freezing weather had been putting “big pressure” on its systems. The thaw followed the worst snow in Northern Ireland in 25 years and record cold temperatures. As temperatures rose, burst pipes drained reservoirs, forcing NI Water to turn off the tap to the 80 locations. Some people were left without water for as long as eleven days.

The BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport said there was recognition that NI Water’s engineers were struggling to deal with an unprecedented number of call-outs, but there was also general condemnation of the company’s inability to communicate better with its increasingly angry consumers. The Stormont executive has accepted help from Scotland and sent civil service staff to help out at NI Water’s call centre. Ministers will want to discuss what further measures can be taken to resolve an emergency which has raised fresh questions about historic under-investment in Northern Ireland’s outdated water network, our editor adds. NI Water is now operating water “black outs” where householders’ supplies are interrupted for a period of six to eight hours, then turned back on again. Local councils are working to supply water and offer free showers to people without a mains supply and information is being provided on the NI Water website on when supplies will be turned on or cut off. The interim chairman of NI Water, Padraic White, admitted its response had been unsatisfactory. He said: “The organisation has to improve its performance, has to improve its communication and I believe will improve its communication over the next two days or so. “I empathise as interim chairman with those people who haven’t had water for the last two or three days – that’s an awful situation to be in.” NI Water’s head of customer services, Liam Mulholland, said Northern Ireland had suffered from years of under-investment. “We had the Troubles and that has led to a level of under-investment in the network which is now manifesting some problems for us which we’re trying to deal with as fast as we can,” he said. The Scottish government is providing 160,000 litres of bottled water, the first of which were loaded on to the ferry to Larne on Wednesday evening.

Mr McGuinness said people had not been given enough information as to when water would be restored. “My focus is on how NI Water can do things better over the course of the next number of days,” he said. Dame Joan Harbison, who speaks on behalf of older people, said many pensioners were struggling to cope. “There are many older people throughout Northern Ireland who haven’t access to water, who can’t go to where the water is and certainly can’t stand in long queues for long periods of time to actually get water,” she said. Peter Maguire, a doctor from Newry, has been living for eight days without water. “This is really now a public health emergency. NI Water has been shambolic. Young families have been left without drinking water and not able to flush toilets. This is unacceptable.” Emergency centres have been set up across Northern Ireland to supply water. Leisure centres are also open to offer free bathing facilities. – BBC