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Top politicians condemn N. Ireland water crisis

By Peter Taggart, For CNN
People in Belfast queue for fresh water on December 29, 2010. An estimated 40,000 have been left without running water.
People in Belfast queue for fresh water on December 29, 2010. An estimated 40,000 have been left without running water.
  • Government officials say the government water company failed "miserably"
  • Northern Ireland Water says up to 60,000 customers affected
  • Some have not had running water since before Christmas
  • It could be next week before crisis is resolved

Belfast, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Someone must be held responsible for a "shambolic" response to a water crisis that has left thousands without running water, one of Northern Ireland's top politicians said Thursday.

Speaking after an emergency meeting of power-sharing ministers in Belfast, First Minister Peter Robinson said the government water company's efforts to restore water supplies to tens of thousands of homes was "shambolic" and "ineffective."

He said a review would now be carried out by ministers and hinted at action against Northern Ireland Water's top executives .

"People must assess their own position, and of course if people don't assess their own position the review will look at where responsibility lies and decisions will be taken on the foot of that," said Robinson.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was also highly critical of the response, calling it "totally unacceptable behaviour by an arm's-length body".

"We are not prepared to accept this treatment on behalf of citizens," he said. "... Under no circumstances are we going to stand here and make excuses for a body that has failed so miserably."

Northern Ireland Water said Thursday it could be early next week before all customers are reconnected.

Up to 60,000 homes and businesses are experiencing water disruption, the company said in a written statement Thursday. Of those, 6,000 have lacked running water since Monday. However, on Tuesday some residents reported they had not had water for nine days.

"The numbers on a curtailed supply will vary from between 3,500 to 60,000 at any given time," the statement 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."

Northern Ireland Water has said the "unprecedented problems" were caused by a rapid thaw, with a huge number of pipes bursting after a dramatic change in temperature -- from minus-16 to 10 degrees Celsius (3 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) "within a matter of hours."

Company officials have also complained about a lack of investment in the water infrastructure over the years.

The company said it had increased the supply of water to its highest level ever -- from 600 million liters per day to 850 million liters per day (158 million gallons to 224 million gallons). "This increase in demand is to a great degree as a result of leakage from bursts on private properties," the statement said.

Doctors are warning of an increasing public health risk if the water shortages continue. Two hospitals have experienced supply problems.

Emergency supplies were being made available at locations across the province, including recreation centers where those without running water were being offered free showers.

The Scottish government has sent 160,000 liters (42,000 gallons) of bottled water to Northern Ireland after supplies ran out.

Ahead of the meeting of ministers on Thursday, Ulster Unionist Party deputy leader John McCallister described the situation as "Third World and horrendous."

He added: "If the executive at Stormont (the Belfast government) isn't able to deal with this, the UK government will have to take over -- that's how bad things are."

In the Republic of Ireland, hundreds of thousands had supplies cut off or restricted, again as a result of burst pipes after the thaw.

Repair crews worked to fix leaks, and mobile water supplies were being sent to the worst-hit areas.

The Irish government said Thursday night most parts of the country would see a resumption of normal water supply within the next two days, but in the capital, Dublin, restrictions were expected to remain in place until January 10.

Irish Minister for the Environment John Gormley said significant progress was being made across the country to deal with water leaks and stoppages. It was also announced restrictions on water supplies were to be eased in most areas Friday night to facilitate New Year's Eve celebrations.