Around 440m litres of water are being lost from Northern Ireland’s crumbling system every day, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The huge volume — equivalent to 172 Olympic-sized swimming pools — includes the 260m litres leaking as a result of the Big Thaw as well as the 180m litres lost daily before the current crisis developed.
Although Northern Ireland Water has pumped a record 852m litres of water into the system in the past 24 hours, more than half of that is escaping through leaks.
“This is a colossal loss of water,” said interim NIW chairman Padraig White.
“We have been injecting in the past 24 hours 862m litres of water — the highest in the history of Northern Ireland. It’s at capacity.
“The normal input of water is 600m litres, so the question is what’s happening to 260m litres of water?”
However, even before the thaw Northern Ireland’s water system, which lags around 20 years behind the rest of the UK, was performing badly.
Around one-third of the supply (181m litres) was being lost a day through leakages at an annual cost of £5m — a figure which does not compare favourably with the national average of one-fifth.
Yesterday this newspaper revealed that investment of £50m per year for the next decade would be needed to bring our water infrastructure up to standard.
At a Press conference yesterday Mr White warned it could be the middle of next week before supplies are returned to anything like normal — a much gloomier prediction than was given by his chief executive Laurence MacKenzie a day earlier.
Speaking after a three-hour crunch meeting with NIW board members at their Westland House HQ, the chairman said that while reservoirs were “gradually refilling” they remained low, with Belfast and Cookstown in the “most precarious positions”.
He also said an estimated 4,400 customers who have been cut off since Monday are still without water and stressed the importance of householders and businesses fixing leaks on their premises, and highlighted three major bursts in Newtownabbey, Limavady and at the Royal Victoria Hospital which accounted for the loss of 10m litres of water in just 48 hours.
“The reservoirs are gradually refilling across the province,” said Mr White. They are doing better in the north and west of the province. The Belfast reservoirs remain in the most precarious position.
“We expect that by the middle of next week that it will no longer be necessary to put customers on rotation basis.
“There may still be a small number, probably in their hundreds, of those in more isolated places or very high up where we are seeking to get supplies up.”
Acknowledging NIW’s shambolic response to the worst water crisis ever experienced in Northern Ireland, Mr White said his organisation would fully co-operate with any future independent review.
“Despite the fact that there was an emergency plan in place which had been developed over the years by NI Water to the best industry standards, it proved seriously inadequate when faced with the unprecedented loss of water on Monday and Tuesday of last week,” he said.