Crisis meeting in N.Ireland over water supplies

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Anger mounted in Northern Ireland on Thursday as ministers prepared to hold a crisis meeting to discuss why tens of thousands of people have been without water supplies for more than a week.

Doctors warned the continued shortages could spark a public health crisis as engineers struggled to repair thousands of pipes which sprang leaks following some of the coldest weather in the British province for decades.

Some 34,000 people were still without running water on Thursday and some families have not had toilet or washing facilities for 11 days. Almost 80 towns and villages have been affected across Northern Ireland.

Scottish authorities have helped by shipping in 160,000 litres of bottled water to be distributed to homes and businesses.

Some politicians have said the crisis points to a chronic lack of investment in a province which only emerged a decade ago from 30 years of killings and bombings known as the Troubles.

But Edwin Poots, the environment minister in the semi-autonomous Northern Ireland Assembly, said the "buck stops" with the local water company and criticised its poor communication with angry homeowners.

He said engineers have restored water to 15,000 of the 40,000 homes without water but the thaw meant another 9,000 properties lost their supply.

Poots said three billion pounds (3.5 billion euros, 4.7 billion dollars) had been invested in recent years but the problem was a "historic issue" -- and he insisted Northern Ireland Water and not the government was to blame.

The minister told BBC radio: "The buck stops with Northern Ireland Water."

He added: "The under-investment that took place was over the period of direct rule.

"A lot of that was really down to the Troubles, when money was diverted from areas such as water to pay for bombs and security services and so forth. But if you have 30 years of under-investment, you are not going to catch up in four or five."

First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were to take charge of the emergency talks.

Phillip Dempster, 31, from south Belfast, has been suffering from interrupted supplies since the thaw began just after December 25.

"It is just terrible, having to queue for water, it just should not happen," he said.

"I have young children at home with the school holidays, it is just dreadful."

© 2010 AFP

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