Fears of a public health crisis in Northern Ireland grew on Wednesday as the state water provider warned supplies would not return to normal for days, leaving tens of thousands of people without water.
A big winter freeze followed by a swift thaw left burst mains and pipes across the province, affecting 40,000 homes and businesses in Belfast as well as 77 other towns and villages, state supplier Northern Ireland Water (NI Water) said.
Some people have been left without water for more than a week and others have had sewage flooding their homes.
Council-run leisure centers offered free washing and showering facilities across the province, freestanding pipes were erected in streets to provide supplies and Scotland will send 160,000 liters of drinking water. Farmers were also worried about getting water for their livestock.
“There is now really a public health emergency. Young families have been left without drinking water and unable to flush toilets. This is unacceptable,” Peter Maguire, a general practitioner near Newry, told the BBC.
“There are now too many vulnerable people who are now without a water supply for over a week. The situation is unprecedented but is now getting out of control,” said Maguire who has been left without water for eight days.
Officials blamed NI Water for being unable to cope.
“Everybody knew that whenever the thaw came there were going to be problems with water, so I think there was a lack of preparation by NI Water,” Northern Irish Minister for the Environment Edwin Poots said.
An emergency meeting of the province’s ministerial executive was to be held yesterday to discuss the crisis.
“NI Water’s response was clearly inadequate and we are now looking urgently at what further measures can be taken to alleviate the problems people are facing. Clearly we must ensure that the vulnerable and those most at risk are protected,” Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said in a joint statement.
NI Water said it was diverting reservoir supplies to different areas to try to provide all regions with a limited supply. However, Liam Mulholland, head of customer services at NI Water, said it would be several days before the bursts were repaired.
Several Irish counties also faced severe shortages and state councils have rationed water in many areas, provoking anger from restaurants, pubs and hotels, which are likely to be affected over New Year’s Eve.