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All hands to the pump

With the province sweltering in heatwave conditions, keeping our water supply flowing is a 24/7 job. We meet the 'leak-busters' who are working around the clock to make sure no one runs out

By Ivan Little

Top NI Water official Gary Curran calls it "the incident". And that's because he says the impact of the recent dry weather on water supplies here hasn't reached crisis level. Yet.

But Gary insists that, no matter what words are used to describe the current water situation, it's the actions that he and his colleagues in NI Water are taking which will, hopefully, cope with the increasing difficulties presented by the current drought - though, again, that isn't the official classification of what Northern Ireland is experiencing at the minute.

At NI Water it literally is a case of all hands to the pump, as staff work round the clock in a bid to ensure that no one runs out of water.

Gary is standing in Swanston Drive in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, where one of his repair teams, who are trying to find the source of a leak, have dug a hole ... and, yes, we are looking into it.

Peering into the chasm shows just how hard a task repair crews face and why they're using shovels, rather than their mini-digger, which started the job in this quiet suburban street.

In the old days, there would have been just a couple of pipes below them. But, nowadays, in the telecoms and digital age, there's a veritable spider's web of underground cables and ducts.

And Leonard Rainey and David Cleland, who are among 45 in-house NI Water employees working on repairs across the province, have to go slowly and carefully to avoid rupturing any other installations.

But they know what they're doing: David alone has worked in the Water Service for over 40 years. He says: "I've lost count of the number of repairs I've done. But there are always some new challenges."

The leak in Swanston Drive was identified after complaints of low water pressure in the area.

Gary says: "Our teams were out at night and, after taking soundings and so on, they identified a leak in a service pipe going into a property. It's an old lead pipe and you can see that it's dripping away there."

The plan is to install a modern, new plastic boundary box to provide a fresh connection point between the mains water supply and the consumer's house.

To the untrained eye, it may seem like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but Gary says even the smallest leak can be a major drain on water supplies and that is causing even more headaches during "the incident" - there's that word again.

He adds: "If you ignored this leak and all the other ones, the summation of them would all add up. And it's a steady run of water, which is a lot more than you would ever imagine. This mightn't look like much, but leaks are constant, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So, they all add up."

One figure puts the figure of water lost at millions of litres a year.

On average, NI Water's squads carry out 200 repairs a month, according to Gary, who is the billing and meter manager of NI Water, but for the moment he has been pressed into service in another role to help out with "the incident" as "the incident" manager.

Many members of the 20-strong "incident" team have, like Gary, been re-assigned to new secondary responsibilities away from their day jobs. Gary can end up going anywhere and everywhere to tap into any new emergency.

As we speak in Swanston Drive, a telephone call sends him scurrying off in pursuit of an even bigger breach in the NI Water system.

In Lyndhurst Park, in the Ballygomartin area, residents have raised the alarm after spotting water coming up through the roadway.

Over 500 houses in the area have had their water turned off as several squads, including outside contractors, investigate what has happened. And it's quickly established that there's a burst in a 5in water main.

But finding it isn't quite as easy as in Swanston Drive. Gary is told that his teams are confident that they'll have the repairs completed in a few hours. Many of the leaks that the NI Water teams are fixing are known as "business-as-usual" (BAU) calls. They're essentially run-of-the-mill glitches, but "the incident" has made their repairs even more crucial in the current climate.

Gary says: "A lot of our standard jobs - like new connections - have also been put on hold and we are managing our resources and prioritising the jobs which are regarded as most important, like repairing leaks and runs of water."

The NI Water "incident" team are working 24/7 from the organisation's headquarters at Bretland House in Belfast. And it's planned that they will be on duty right throughout July because the Met Office, whose forecasts are vitally important to NI Water, see no end in sight to the current dry spell.

Gary says: "Our team monitor water flows and consumption levels and make strategic decisions about how to move forward."

Many members of the 20-strong team have, like Gary, been re-assigned to new secondary responsibilities away from their day jobs.

NI Water, which is in the midst of a huge capital investment programme to improve their mains and treatment works, have appealed to people to restrict their use of water and to stop young people vandalising fire hydrants in their districts.

"It might seem like a bit fun to see youngsters playing in the gushing water but that's not the case. If a hydrant is running for an hour, that's equivalent to the consumption for a household for two days," says Gary.

"The pressure can also drop away down and people will not be able to use their toilets, or showers, because the hydrant is running, and the worst-case scenario is that, if there's a fire in the area, the Fire Service might not be able to get sufficient water out of the mains."

There are indications, however, that the NI Water strategy on conserving supplies across Northern Ireland is paying off, but no one is getting carried away.

"At one point, the increased demand due to the very dry weather was about 30% above normal, but it has gradually reduced to about 20%," says Gary, who attributes the decrease to the hosepipe ban and to the co-operation of consumers cutting back on their use of water.

It's estimated, incidentally, that only 1% of treated water here is actually drunk by householders. The rest is used for toilets and showers and for watering the garden.

However, NI Water says, while the improvements are welcome, there are still areas where problems with supplies and low pressure exist, and tankers are being used to transport water to them.

The last time there was a spell of dry weather like the current one was back in 1995, when a hosepipe ban was also introduced.

Gary Curran says NI Water staff have come across people who are ignoring the latest hosepipe ban, but no £1,000 fines have been imposed - so far.

"We are trying to use persuasion in the first instance, asking consumers if they understand the implications of them using their hosepipes," Gary says.

"We want gardeners to act responsibly - just as we are asking people to take showers instead of baths - and shorter showers at that."

The longer the dry spell goes on, the more pessimists believe that water restrictions will be introduced.

But Gary adds: "That is not inevitable. But, potentially, it is something we may look at. But, by trying to maximise the outputs from other sources, Lough Neagh primarily, we are trying to mitigate the need to put on more stringent restrictions."

If push comes to shove, bringing in water tankers from Britain could be a last - and costly - resort, but the authorities across the, er, water would be just as likely to be facing similar shortages as their counterparts in Northern Ireland.

Back at Swanston Drive, Paul Doherty, who's NI Water's repair and maintenance manager for north Belfast, says responses to emergencies involving leaks and bursts in residential districts don't usually encounter too many major problems.

But he adds: "They're more complicated in the city centre because we have to go for traffic permits to get road closures and we often can't get into many of the sites.

"There's a lot of background and planning work that needs to be done."

It's thought that, if the present weather persists, the strain on water supplies could be on a par with, if not worse than, 1995. But the year 2010 was even more of a nightmare for NI Water - for very different reasons.

For that was the year of the freeze/thaw which held Northern Ireland in its grip after heavy, sustained snow showers over Christmas and which caused water pipes to burst, reservoirs to run dry and supplies to be cut off to 450,000 people.

NI Water was heavily criticised by the public as well as the Utility Regulator over their handling of what was generally regarded as a crisis - not an "incident".

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