Water everywhere, but only a drop to drink

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MPs demanded an inquiry into why hundreds of thousands of households were still without water yesterday, as the Great Thaw turned into the Great Leak.

Water companies were yesterday urging householders to "go dirty for a couple of days" as supplies in Scotland, Wales and across the north of England remained cut after a flood of burst pipes and mains.

The water regulator Ofwat yesterday asked all water companies to provide assessments of the problem. It is not yet clear how many of the shortages are the responsibility of the companies as opposed to the customers. But as customers are entitled to claim pounds 10 per day for companies' failure to provide water, the compensation bill could run into millions.

Sunderland's Labour MPs Chris Mullin and Bill Etherington have written to John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, urging him to investigate what provision water companies had made for such emergencies and whether resources had been affected by privatisation. "The north of England is used to severe winters, but it has never before been necessary to cut off our water on anything like the scale now contemplated," Mr Mullin said.

The public services union Unison estimated that since privatisation in the region the number of employees working for water companies may have halved. But a spokesman for the Water Services Association, which represents the regional water companies in England and Wales, said the burst pipes had been caused by exceptionally low temperatures followed by a relatively quick thaw which caused a lot of ground movement. "The companies have geared themselves up for this contingency," he said. "They have had teams in place throughout the Christmas period to mitigate any possible problems for customers."

Scotland was among the hardest hit areas with hundreds of thousands of homes hit by burst pipes or interrupted supplies. In Strathclyde alone, up to half a million homes were affected. A spokesman for the council said the situation had stopped deteriorating, "but we are still running very fast just to stand still."

Lothian water director Gus Ferguson said the main problem at reservoirs was not water levels, but treatment plants which were struggling to replenish reservoirs as fast as they were depleting. Like other authorities, Lothian appealed to the public to minimise demand. "Our message is, go dirty for a couple of days," he said.

In Northumbria the worst-hit areas were Tyneside, Wearside, Ashington and Newbiggin, with about 150,000 customers cut off. A spokesman for Northumbrian Water said that some areas had been without water for days and that other areas were at risk of losing their supplies.

North East Water estimated it was losing 18 million gallons a day in the Newcastle region alone.

Drought-hit Yorkshire Water was battling to restore supplies to 6,000 homes in Leeds, while in North Wales, hundreds of homes were still without supplies because of widespread damage to water mains. Welsh Water said levels of some reservoirs were also continuing to fall because of leaks in the system.

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