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Northern Ireland government plans water crisis meeting

By Peter Taggart, For CNN
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Thousands without water in N. Ireland
  • NEW: The meeting will be held Thursday
  • Tens of thousands have been without water for more than a week
  • Local councils are offering free showers to those without water
  • Nearly 80 towns and villages are affected

Belfast, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- The Northern Ireland power-sharing government said Wednesday it will hold an emergency meeting to discuss a crisis that has left an estimated 40,000 people without water for as long as 10 days.

The Thursday meeting will be chaired by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the government said.

The crisis has left people across Northern Ireland without running water because of pipes that burst in the cold weather, officials said Wednesday.

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and charities including the Red Cross have been drafted to help distribute emergency supplies after what the Belfast government called "an unprecedented number of burst pipes."

Local councils were also working to supply water and offering free showers to people without running water.

Almost 80 towns and villages across Northern Ireland have been affected and government company Northern Ireland Water has warned the disruption could continue for several more days.

The company said it was alternating supplies from reservoirs in a bid to give every area a limited supply, causing more interruptions.

Supplies of bottled water have run out at a number of collection points. The Scottish government has offered to supply extra bottled water.

McGuinness summoned officials to crisis talks Wednesday and said the situation was "completely unacceptable."

Liam Mulholland of Northern Ireland Water blamed government "underinvestment" during decades of conflict in Northern Ireland for the current difficulties.

"We had the Troubles and that has led to a level of underinvestment 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 period of conflict and violence stretching into the 1980s in Northern Ireland is often called "the Troubles."

There is growing criticism of Northern Ireland Water's performance in what local media are calling a "water shortage crisis."

Alasdair McDonnell, a member of the British Parliament representing South Belfast, said it is "a disgrace people were being put into a Third World scenario and were being forced to queue for water."

There are also water shortages in the Republic of Ireland as a result of burst pipes and a surge in demand after the thaw set in.

Local authorities have been providing water tankers and standpipes as widespread water restrictions continue.