Belfast Telegraph

Huge investment needed to mop up water disaster

Its CEO has gone, but NI Water is an accident waiting to happen. Mutualisation is the answer, says Mike Smyth

It is hardly surprising that in the immediate aftermath of the water crisis, and Northern Ireland Water chief executive Laurence MacKenzie's resignation, the blame-game has begun in earnest.

Citizens and householders across Northern Ireland expect that, when they turn on their water taps or showers, water will be delivered on demand and, for many decades, this has more or less been the case.

It cannot be denied the December cold snap - the coldest recorded here - was exceptional and the speed of the thaw, when it came, precipitated unprecedented levels of burst pipes and burst mains.

But that having been said, it is also hard not to come to the conclusion that Northern Ireland Water was ill-prepared to deal with an emergency on such a scale.

As much as the days without water, households were let down, particularly, by very poor levels of communication in what was an inadequate emergency response.

Several reasons to try to explain the mess have been circulating.

Some commentators have blamed the legacy of benign neglect and underinvestment in infrastructure during the Troubles, laying the blame squarely at the door of a succession of direct rule ministers.

But this is far too neat. Obviously, resources that could have gone into the water infrastructure in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were diverted to other uses. But this does not explain all of the chronic, decades-long underinvestment.

The privatisation of water in Great Britain was accompanied by the so-called 'Green dowry' and this was invested in major infrastructural improvements.

Northern Ireland did not participate in water privatisation and now, unfortunately, the possibility of a 'Green dowry' from the Treasury in London has gone.

Since privatisation, there has been massive investment in the water infrastructure in Great Britain - paid for by consumers. Northern Ireland Water needs to undertake substantial investment in the water mains and pipe networks to bring our system up to UK standards.

The water crisis has also raised a number of governance issues at NI Water. The performance of the company is primarily down to the board (including the senior management team) and it should shoulder some responsibility in this matter.

What emergency planning was put in place to deal with such an eventuality?

Given that the water supply is such a key public service, and also given the recent experiences with flooding in large urban areas, contingency planning should have been stepped up. This planning should have been regularly revised and appropriate levels of contingency funding should have been set aside.

NI Water should have also developed first-class communication channels and used our world-class information and communication technology infrastructure to better inform its customers.

Since the return of devolved government to the Assembly, the issue of the water service and its future has not been well-handled.

The plan to create a so-called 'GoCo' - a government company that could access the capital markets - did not go ahead. The funding of much-needed investment in water infrastructures has been clouded in uncertainty for several years.

The budget cuts will do little to change this. NI Water's legal status should now be changed as a matter of urgency. It should be mutualised and allowed to access funding from the capital markets (especially the European Investment Bank).

It is the only way for Northern Ireland Water to address the pressing issue of historic underinvestment.

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