Belfast Telegraph

Water crisis worsens as families forced to use rivers and melt snow in Northern Ireland

Striking workers blamed for 'third world' situation

By Adrian Rutherford

People were forced to ferry water from a river in the freezing darkness after strike action by NI Water workers left them high and dry.

Up to 2,500 properties in three counties were without supplies at one stage yesterday as a dispute over pensions rumbled on.

One woman complained that she couldn't heat her home as temperatures were forecast to plunge as low as -6C in some parts of Northern Ireland last night.

Patricia Gray, who lives near Draperstown in Co Londonderry, said: "We're ratepayers, we're paying for a service that has just let us down completely."

Other customers told how they had to melt snow and carry buckets of water from rivers in what they branded a "third world" situation.

And in Omagh the Red Cross was drafted in to hand out emergency water supplies.

As anger grew last night, fury was being turned on union bosses who called the strikes - and snubbed offers of talks.

It came as the head of NI Water, Sara Venning, warned the crisis was about to get even worse.

She said it was unacceptable that industrial action was being "aimed and targeted" at customers.

The problems were sparked by changes to NI Water pensions as part of a wider programme of public sector pension reform.

Unions claim the government-owned company's attempts to scrap the current pension scheme will cost many members up to £100 a month.

As a result more than 1,000 employees are on a work-to-rule protest, with on-call and emergency services withdrawn. Instead staff will only work between 8am and 4pm during the week, with no cover for water treatment works or distribution works outside these hours.

That has led to misery for thousands of customers across Tyrone, Fermanagh and Mid-Ulster.

Last weekend 10,000 properties were without water, and another 2,500 were affected yesterday. By nightfall some 1,300 homes were still cut off, with Omagh and Draperstown worst hit.

Damian Doyle, who has been without water since last Tuesday, said he had to trek through the snow in the dark for water to keep his home running.

"I've had to go to the river with buckets to get water to fill the cistern," he said.

"I've had to go at night as I work during the day and am not here to fill the buckets.

"My wife has actually used snow off the roof of the car to try and make tea.

"It's like a third world country. It's unbelievable."

Patricia Gray, who has been without water since Thursday morning, said she had been left with a freezing home.

"It's the coldest snap in the winter and we can't even heat the house due to the pressurised system that uses the water," she said.

"Apologies are no good for us. People are running a multi-million pound company and it's just not good enough."

Anger spilled over yesterday after it emerged that union leaders snubbed an offer of talks which could have ended the crisis.

Ms Venning told the BBC: "We made an offer on Friday and we asked that while they consider the offer they put in place arrangements to protect the public drinking water supply.

"They refused to do that, and we see these interruptions to supply as a direct consequence of their refusal."

However, Ryan McKinney from the public service union Nipsa said NI Water had put forward what it said was a "final offer" on Friday, but it was not enough to suspend the industrial action.

Mr McKinney said he hoped the dispute could be resolved this week.

Fermanagh/South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew said the impasse must end.

"Access to water is one of the most basic human needs," she said.

"I am urging NI Water, the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy and the unions to redouble their efforts to find an early resolution to this dispute so that no family is left without access to water."

'Every time we ring them it's a different story'

Damian and Eilish Doyle, who live near Draperstown, have been without water since last Tuesday. They have had to melt snow and take bucket-loads from a nearby river to try and keep their home in south Derry running. Mr Doyle said it was similar to a third world country.

"The last five days have been a nightmare," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "We have three children and we cannot do anything without water. We can't cook, we can't wash, we can't do laundry.

"The water people have brought us bottled water but we go through them in no time.

"Every time we ring them it's a different story.

"I had someone on with me and they have offered to pay for a hot meal - but they can't tell me when our water will be back on."

Mr Doyle said he was worried that some appliances may have been damaged by the water outage. He said he had no idea when his supply would return.

"We have to boil water if we want to use it, so we have been using more electricity and gas," he added.

"My wife has actually used snow off the roof of the car to try and make tea.

"It is like a third world country. It is unbelievable. It is putting an awful stress on our family."

'We can't seem to get any answers'

Robert O'Hare, who lives near Omagh, had been without water for 30 hours by yesterday afternoon.

"It's so frustrating - you turn on the tap and expect water," he said.

"It is only when none comes out that you realise how reliant you are on it.

"We've been filling containers from water tanks and using bottled water, but it is really inconvenient."

Mr O'Hare, who has two daughters, said that he bought four large bottles of water yesterday - but these were gone in just a few hours. "It's bad enough for us, but some of our neighbours have young children," he added.

"The whole thing is compounded by the weather.

"We're struggling to get about in the snow and ice.

"The worst thing is that we can't seem to get answers from anyone."

If you want to find out what is happening in your area visit the NI Water major incident helpline website

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