War of words over faltering water supply steps up

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The war of words over Northern Ireland's faltering water supply has stepped up ahead of a crunch board meeting of the company at the centre of the storm.

The leaders of Northern Ireland Water (NIW), the government owned company responsible for water supply in the region, will meet this afternoon to review the crisis.

Thousands of homes are still without water while more than 20,000 continue to suffer interrupted supply.

The board will report to Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy who will update Executive colleagues within days on plans for a full investigation into the damage caused by arctic weather conditions, plus NIW's heavily-criticised response.

"I will be seeking assurances that this will not happen again this winter," Mr Murphy said.

As temperatures plummeted to record lows, pipes froze and when the rapid thaw followed after Christmas there was a massive number of bursts.

NIW hopes to have much of Belfast reconnected today but it could be early next week before those in remote areas receive help.

In a further development the former Northern Ireland Water acting chief executive Christopher Mellor, said the crisis was a "disaster waiting to happen".

He was among a number of board members sacked by the minister last March after criticisms of the oversight of how contracts were allocated.

But Mr Mellor said: "I think this is what happens when you get rid of the directors at the top of NIW, who knew what they were doing, and replace them with people who have no experience of running a water utility."

Mr Murphy rejected the claims and told the BBC: "I would have been rightly criticised for leaving the board in place, on the basis that Chris Mellor alone had some experience in a water utility company, given the procurement practices that were going on."

Scotland has already provided bottled water and the Westminster Coalition is prepared to provide extra call centre staff, water tankers and engineers.

Ministers have branded NIW's handling of the crisis "shambolic" and called for somebody to be held to account.

Last night Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "There has to be accountability and we are not going to, under those circumstances, stand here and make excuses for a body that has so miserably failed our citizens."

First Minister Peter Robinson said: "There has to be an accountability for what has taken place and we don't think anybody could suggest NIW have covered themselves with any glory over the past days and people must assess their position."

He added: "We are not satisfied with the performance and are absolutely determined that it will not be repeated.

"It has been shambolic at stages, it has been ineffective, it has not been the kind of organisation that has been fit for purpose."

NIW has pointed to years of underinvestment in the supply network and blamed much of the leakage on private property owners not checking their premises. Millions of extra litres are thought to be gushing out through unidentified leaks.

The Assembly returns next month and that will increase the pressure for resignations, although at this stage NIW chief executive Laurence MacKenzie says he is focused on the job in hand and working hard to co-ordinate the relief effort.