Last year Northern Ireland Water said it was providing the highest quality drinking water ever seen in the province to local consumers.
It was therefore something of a shock to learn that water supplies to almost half the homes in Northern Ireland were suspected of being contaminated yesterday.
And there was also some public disquiet that it was several hours before householders were informed of the potential problem and advised to boil all water except that used for washing or toilets.
The contaminated sample was discovered on Monday night, but it was not until yesterday morning that the advisory notice to 220,000 households was issued. That was a somewhat slothful reaction and Northern Ireland Water should look at its |response times to such events.
In the end, our water got the all-clear. And it has to be accepted that the company made stringent efforts to get to the cause of the potential problem.
Several samples were taken and subjected to tests at both the company’s own laboratories and an
independent laboratory. This enabled the testers to determine if there was a possible contamination source or whether the initial result was due to a false reading.
Over many years the Water Service, which was run by direct rule ministers, was starved of investment, hence the controversial decision to bring forward plans to charge householders for water and sewage services.
That situation has improved somewhat in recent times and the switch to NI Water — an arms length agency — has led to improvements in water quality.
The company has also begun a huge programme of investment in infrastructure, including modernising water and sewage treatment plants.
The company’s director of operations, David Dangerfield, said that the Donore Point water treatment works which was at the centre of this water quality scare is one of the most modern in the system, having been commissioned within the past 12 months.
He also assured householders that the plant is |capable of extracting water from Lough Neagh and providing householders with safe drinking water even though several sewage treatment works discharge into the Lough.
Northern Ireland homes have always had to rely on water from Lough Neagh because of the difficulty of creating new reservoirs of sufficient size to meet the demand of home owners.
Without Lough Neagh’s extraction facilities there would be a huge deficit in the amount of water in the household pipelines.
The company can point out that its daily checking of water quality pays dividends. In this instance a potential problem was discovered and further checks were carried out to either verify the initial reading or discard it.
Obviously, it is vitally important that water quality is of the highest possible order and, while accidental contamination can occur from time to time, all potential problems must be brought to the attention of consumers as quickly as possible.
Once householders have been alerted, then the water company can carry out its quality checks and any required remedial action.
The customer must always come first in the company’s thinking, otherwise it could find itself in very hot water indeed.