Anger mounts in N.Ireland as burst pipes cut water supplies
Anger was mounting in Northern Ireland on Thursday among tens of thousands of people left without water supplies after a rapid thaw of pipes following freezing weather caused many to burst.
Doctors warned the continued shortages could spark a public health crisis after the massive interruption in supplies to homes and businesses left about 36,000 people without running water.
A major effort has been set in motion to tackle the crisis, with Scotland sending in lorries carrying 160,000 litres of bottled water.
Some families have not had toilet or washing facilities for 11 days and almost 80 towns and villages have been affected across Northern Ireland after the thaw, which followed some of the coldest weather in living memory.
Anger at Northern Ireland Water (NIW), the government-owned supplier in the province, was growing as people queued with containers at water distribution centres.
"Every time we call Northern Ireland Water it's the same -- they have no idea when it will be turned on," James Lawson, from Lisburn, just south of Belfast, told the BBC.
"It's disgraceful and now becoming a health risk."
Lawson said he had been going to a leisure centre three miles (4.8 kilometres) away to collect water and had resorted to going to go to the toilet outside to save water.
Health experts warned that the lack of water for people to drink, wash and flush toilets meant the situation presented real health risks.
"This is really now a public health emergency," said Peter Maguire, a doctor in the province.
"People with young families have not been able to flush toilets and wash themselves, never mind get access to drinking water. It's just not good enough. What's happening is really not acceptable."
Leisure centres in the province are opening up to provide shower facilities and civil servants have been drafted in to call centres in support of staff answering thousands of queries from the public.
Northern Ireland's devolved administration will hold a crisis meeting in Belfast on Thursday to discuss what extra measures can be taken.
"People feel they were let down, and they were let down," admitted Deputy First Minster Martin McGuinness.
"NI Water's response was clearly inadequate and we are now looking urgently at what further measures can be taken to alleviate the problems people are facing," said a statement from the Northern Ireland government.
Pressure was growing on Laurence McKenzie, the chief executive of NIW, and the regional development minister Conor Murphy in the wake of the crisis.
McKenzie admitted there was "a lot for this organisation to learn" but blamed problems on the rapid change in temperatures, which he said went from well below freezing to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) in a short time.
NIW said late Wednesday that 95 percent of customers were getting water after supplies were increased to their highest ever level. It is expected to take a few days before repairs are complete and the system is back to normal.
© 2010 AFP