Northern Ireland

NI Water ill prepared for winter water crisis

Filling up: at the height of the crisis 40,000 homes were off supply
Image caption Filling up: at the height of the crisis 40,000 homes were off supply

Northern Ireland Water was not prepared to deal with the Christmas water crisis which left 450,000 people without mains supply, a report by the Utility Regulator has found.

It said the winter freeze had cost the company £7.5m. At the height of the crisis, a million people phoned the NI Water helpline.

However, a separate report, also published on Thursday, is supportive of how the Department of Regional Development handled the crisis.

The independent report concluded that the department acted in a manner consistent with its governance requirements in relation to Northern Ireland Water.

The Utility Regulator's report said NI Water - the government-owned body, which is the sole provider of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland - was not prepared to deal with the magnitude of the crisis.

In particular, it pointed to a failure of the company's executive leadership.

It said the company's execution of emergency planning was deficient, particularly in respect of communication with consumers.

But the report's authors said that the water mains were relatively new in NI and performed as well as could be expected, there is no need for an immediate change in the mains infrastructure investment levels.

The report said front-line operational teams worked effectively in very challenging weather conditions. The investigation produced 57 actions which are included in the detailed report.

Shane Lynch, the Utility Regulator's chief executive said: "Our investigation establishes that the execution of NI Water's emergency planning procedures was deficient, its communications were very ineffective and there was a failure in the necessary executive leadership within the company during the freeze/thaw incident."

NI Water's interim chief executive, Trevor Haslett said he was fully committed to taking forward all the recommendations.

"We in NI Water fully accept that many lessons need to be learnt from what was an exceptionally difficult time for many of our customers," he said.

"This report does highlight the fact that much good work was done by our staff on the ground, and I want to record my sincere thanks to those people for their efforts in often extremely difficult circumstances."

Mr Haslett said his focus was on learning and embedding the lessons learned from the crisis and going forward in order to provide the best possible service to customers.

The separate report, compiled by Phil Holder and Heather Moorhead, found that the DRD minister had acted in a manner consistent with the governance arrangements.

It said the company had given extensive assurances about its preparedness for a freeze/thaw event.

The report found the department had strong governance and a reporting regime in place. It said it was reasonable for the department to accept assurances given

Mr Murphy said this validated his decisions. He said the report "does find that I performed effectively and was fully engaged throughout the process.

"I knew what my relationship was with NI Water and I had gone beyond that... I am glad to see that those tasked with looking at this have found the same."

More than 40,000 homes were off mains supply during the winter water crisis.

At the height of the crisis, about one million people were trying to ring NI Water.

Customers were angry and frustrated that they could not get through to a call centre. Some were left without water for more than a week.

The water crisis had many casualties, from those whose homes were flooded, to those left without a mains supply for many days, to the head of NI Water who resigned his post.

The severity of the crisis was brought home to many when Scotland and the Irish Republic sent hundreds of thousands of litres of bottled water to ease the plight of NI Water customers.

Northern Ireland Water bore the brunt of public anger.

NI Water chief executive Laurence MacKenzie resigned in the wake of the crisis, with many people critical of the company's failure to come to the aid of those in need.

It blamed the rapid thaw, after a period of record low temperatures, for causing an unprecedented amount of burst pipes in the system.

The company also cited historic underinvestment in Northern Ireland's infrastructure as a contributing factor in the crisis.

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