Belfast Telegraph

NI Water crisis: This makes us look like Third World, chief executive told

Chief Executive Sara Venning is under fire oversupply loss shambles

By Chris Kilpatrick

Angry residents left without water for days have demanded the head of NI Water see the "Third World" conditions for herself.

Around 9,000 homes remained without water last night as industrial action by unions continued.

Both the unions and management of NI Water came under fire as anger grew over the handling of the latest crisis to hit the company.

Staff have refused to do overtime and respond to emergency callouts despite pleas from the company to suspend the work-to-rule action over proposed pension changes.

Temperatures dropped to as low as -8C in some areas in the early hours of yesterday, compounding the misery for those caught up in the shortages.

The conditions in the worst affected areas of counties Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh have been described as “Third World”.

Desperate residents have had to resort to using snow for washing and drinking, with others carrying buckets of water from rivers. Angry families last night said NI Water head Sara Venning should have travelled to see the problems for herself.

Eilish Doyle, a mother-of-three from Draperstown, was without water for almost a week.

“We had nothing. It’s OK for the head to come on television and apologise. She’s in a big, warm office. She should be here. Goodwill gestures from the company are too little, too late.”

Ms Venning — who earns in the region of £185,000 including her salary and pension payments — said members of the company’s management had been involved in distributing water to customers in recent days. She also defended not travelling to affected homes in the west of the region — and said she was not considering her position. “I can assure people I have been working round-the-clock from before this became an industrial action to try to avoid it and I have been in our incident centres and working solely on this since it became an industrial action,” she said

“I am very committed to mitigating the impact of this on customers. Through my work in the incident centres I am hearing their stories first-hand and I am making sure they are being contacted. We are putting in place mitigation measures, we are considering all aspects.”

She added: “I think my position is to put customers’ interests first, to find a common ground between ourselves and unions, and to get back to the business of providing drinking water and waste water services. That’s what we do best, it’s what we have been doing very well of late.”

She also rounded on the unions, saying the action was unreasonable. They are considering a third offer over pensions and are to meet with NI Water again today.

The Red Cross — commonly deployed to regions caught up in famine or war — was on the ground delivering water to stricken households in recent days.

Last weekend 10,000 properties were without water. Yesterday morning 6,500 homes were said to have been affected, a figure that rose to around 9,000 by last night.

West Tyrone MLA Ross Hussey, who sits on the DRD committee, said: “People are continuing to suffer but this is because the labour was withdrawn by the staff.

“Clearly, had they worked over the weekend, this could have been resolved. We have families suffering and children suffering.

“There is also a vomiting bug that is hitting the area, and the lack of water is causing disruption to families.

“They can’t wash themselves and they can’t wash clothes.

“In some instances they are melting snow for water. It is an appalling situation — a Third World situation which should have been resolved some time ago.”

There were demands last night for Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy and the company to get a grip on the crisis. David McNarry, who also sits on Stormont’s regional development committee, said: “Irrespective of industrial disputes, these people have a right to water. There are no excuses and I find the minister and NI Water culpable in creating unnecessary hardship.”

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