Northern Ireland Executive meets over water crisis

The BBC's Alexandra Mackenzie visited one family finding it very difficult to live without water

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An emergency Executive meeting called to discuss Northern Ireland's water crisis has just finished at Stormont.

More than 6,000 homes remain without any water on Thursday evening and Northern Ireland Water is rotating supply to some 60,000 customers.

Those people on curtailed supply will generally find their supplies will be off for between six to eight hours.

Earlier, NI Water warned it could be next week before all homes and businesses are reconnected.

It said the numbers of those on a curtailed supply will vary from between 3,500 to 60,000 at any given time.

In a statement on Thursday evening, the company said: "NI Water will continue to rotate supplies so figures will increase and decrease as this process is continued in order to protect reservoir levels.

"The figures for those without water will continue to decrease as bursts are repaired."

South Tyrone Hospital, Dungannon, and Lagan Valley Hospital, Lisburn, have been affected by the water supply crisis.

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State has warned there could be major changes in how the NI water supply is financed.

Owen Paterson said Northern Ireland's infrastructure had suffered over the years and that changes were now needed.

"What will be looked at here is the difference in the way that water is paid for in the rest of the UK and the way it is paid for in Northern Ireland, where it is just an element of the rates," he said.

"I think what is clear is that the events of the last week or so will bring this to a head. It is a major issue that has to be resolved."

Graph showing investment in NI water and sewerage

Meanwhile South Tyrone Hospital has been relying on the NI Fire Service and bottled water. Lagan Valley Hospital was without water for a number of "hours".

Eighty villages and towns have been affected as pipes burst in the thaw.

Around 18,000 customers are still affected in the Belfast area, 5,000 in the eastern part of Northern Ireland and 8,000-9,000 in the western area.

Trevor Haslett, director of engineering at NI Water, said the situation in urban areas was improving and should be better by Friday afternoon.

Burst pipes

However, he added: "It could be early next week before everybody is on supply."

Mr Haslett said over a period of 12 hours the company suffered more burst service pipes than he could remember for 35 years.

The company has invested £150m in water mains over the past three years, replacing 1% of the system but in other parts of the UK almost double the amount of infrastructure had been replaced, he said.

"If NIW received more money for water mains we could increase the rate of renewal," Mr Haslett said.

NI Water's Chief Executive, Lawrence MacKenzie, and Trevor Haslett, Director of Engineering & Procurement, take questions

The company has admitted that substantially more people have been affected over the period of the shortages.

It said much of the extra 250m litres it has released into the system has already leaked out - some of it through its own own distribution system, but most because of damaged pipes on private property.

The Stormont Executive is currently discussing what further measures can be taken.

One man queuing for water in east Belfast said his water service has been interrupted since just after Christmas.

"It is just terrible, having to queue for water. It just should not happen," he told the Associated Press.

'Big pressure'

NI Water, a 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 have been without water for 12 days.

The Stormont Executive has accepted help from Scotland and sent civil service staff to help out at NI Water's call centre.

'Black outs'

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.

Planned times for when supplies will be switched off, for a period of time, and then restored are indicated on the major incident page on its website.

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.

In a statement, the Utility regulator said the priority for the rest of this week was to let NI Water manage and restore supplies as a matter of urgency.

"We have asked for a meeting with NI Water early next week to discuss the company's performance," a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, North Down Alliance Councillor Andrew Muir has called on NI Water to halt its plan to sell reservoirs across Northern Ireland, including six in Craigantlet Hills between Bangor and Belfast and one in Groomsport at Portavoe.

He said that, in light of recent events, NI Water must scrap these sale plans.

More information on the water shortage is available from the NI Water website, or telephone hot line on 08457 440088, on Ceefax page 169 and BBC News Online.

Are you in Northern Ireland? Are you experiencing problems with your water supply due to the weather? Do you run a small business? How has it affected trade? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below.

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