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Water boss under pressure to quit

The chief executive of Northern Ireland Water is facing demands to quit as engineers 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 is to meet in Belfast to discuss what extra measures are needed to deal with the worsening situation but questions are being asked about the performance of top staff at Northern Ireland Water (NIW), the company at the centre of the crisis.

There were calls for the chief executive Laurence McKenzie to stand down.

Martin McGuinness, deputy First Minister, said the NIW's performance would be reviewed later and this wasn't the time for resignations. But John Dallat, an SDLP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly insisted he would have to go.

He claimed: "The company is now effectively being run by people who have no experience of water utilities. No one should be in any doubt that this crisis didn't begin with the first snow flake. NIW has been in crisis for a very long time so it should come as no surprise that there was no contingency plan and a complete breakdown in how to manage the situation."

Mr McKenzie said his immediate focus was to get all customers back on supply. "We had a very rapid thaw," he said. "Temperatures changed from minus 16 to 10 degrees in a very short space of time. It was the rapid thaw which caused the problems. I think there is a lot for this organisation to learn."

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

Some families have had no running water for 11 days, and people queuing with containers looked on in disbelief as tankers arrived empty at distribution centres in Belfast and Cookstown, Co Tyrone.

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 reponse."