Health fears over drought order cuts

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The Independent Online
Yorkshire Water yesterday announced plans to cut off the water supply of 400,000 people every other day.

The Department of the Environment will today receive an application for an emergency drought order from the water company. If granted - and it probably will be - it would allow the company to cut off Halifax and Bradford for 24 hours at a time. The announcement caused widespread concern about health risks. Once a day-on day-off system begins, all customers in the affected areas will have to boil drinking water because the risk of bacterial contamination increases.

Yorkshire Water said groups of people who would suffer most from the cuts, such as elderly people in nursing homes, could be supplied by bowser. It has guaranteed not to interrupt the supply to hospitals.

Mothers with young babies, industry, restaurants and other water-reliant business like hairdressers will not be exempt from the rota cuts, which will affect entire supply zones. Households will be able to apply for compensation for the loss of supply and for having to boil drinking water.

Water levels in six storage reservoirs around Halifax and Bradford are still falling and are only16 per cent full after the exceptionally dry summer. Halifax is worst affected, and will be first in line for the rota cuts.

Since the beginning of September, the affected area has had slightly more than average rainfall for the time of year but not enough to stop reservoir levels falling. Only prolonged, heavy rainfall will reverse the trend.

The rota cuts should reduce consumption by a quarter. Despite a hosepipe ban and repeated warnings about the severity of the drought, local people were still using about the same quantity as they were this time last year. An end to bathing and showering would lower demand substantially and allow the cuts to be deferred.

People in the area are extremely concerned about the prospect. John Whitham, who owns the 40-bed Hazelroyd Nursing Home in Halifax, said: ''I honestly don't know how we'll manage. A lot of our patients are in their 90s, and many are doubly incontinent and terminally ill. If they weren't in nursing homes they'd be in hospital.''

Michael Biggins, of Mid-Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said: ''People's jobs could be at stake if Yorkshire Water is not more selective about who is cut off.''

A Department of the Environment spokeswoman said it would be at least two weeks before a decision was made on whether to grant the emergency drought order. It will invite written representations before doing so and may hold a public inquiry.

Yorkshire Water has recently promised to hold its own public inquiry into avoiding future water shortages.

It has one of the highest mains leakage figures among the water companies; it admits to 26 per cent while water industry regulator Ofwat puts the figure at 32 per cent.

The company has said it will now spend up to pounds 20m a year extra on reducing leaks.