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'Heads must roll' over water crisis

Water bosses in Northern Ireland are facing demands to quit as engineers continue to struggle to repair leaking pipes to tens of thousands of homes, amid fears the drinking water fiasco could develop into a major health emergency.

Lorries carrying 160,000 litres of bottled water are due to arrive from Scotland in a bid to ease the plight of families all over the country, many of whom have been without toilet and washing facilities since before Christmas, when temperatures were at their lowest in living memory.

The Stormont Executive will meet in Belfast on Thursday to discuss what extra measures are needed to deal with the worsening situation, but questions are already being asked about the performance of top staff at Northern Ireland Water (NIW), the company at the centre of the crisis.

It is expected to be at least a few days before all the repair work to burst pipes is finished and the system gets back to normal.

Supplies are being rotated, but up to 36,000 customers are affected at any one time.

Conor Murphy, the minister in charge of the Department of Regional Development, who admitted serious failures in the public information process, is also under pressure.

Mr Murphy said: "I can understand the frustration and anger, and lessons need to be learned."

Glynn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association said: "How come other parts of the UK went through similar weather conditions, but haven't suffered the drought we have? Heads should roll because of the disastrous response."

Outside Londonderry and Belfast, one of the areas hardest hit, almost 80 other towns and villages in all six counties have had supplies disrupted because of unprecedented demands on resources in the aftermath of the thaw which followed one of the coldest periods in living memory.

NIW claims 95% of customers are getting water after supplies were increased to their highest ever level, up 40% from 600 million litres a day to 850 million. It was anticipated that interruptions would last between six to eight hours.