The appalling images, for almost three weeks, of thousands of people, young and old, filling water bottles at stand pipes were scandalous. It brought levels of anger and frustration never seen before directed at NIW and the Assembly Executive.
It has been estimated at its peak hardly a town or village was not affected as 40 – 60,000 homes were left without water. At one point, NIW was overwhelmed by over one million contacts from customers, as vulnerable people left in freezing conditions reported they were forced to either suffer without water or use snow for cooking. As shops ran out of bottled water many were forced to use lemonade to flush their toilets! The company received 10,000 e-mails and its website received almost 500,000 visits. The situation became so critical that the Assembly Executive had to request the Scottish Assembly to ship 160,000 litres of water with 200,000 litres in reserve to Northern Ireland.
Health and safety crisis
At one point over Christmas Day and Boxing Day, water supplies to the Royal Victoria Regional Hospital in Belfast failed, leaving patients without any water for drinking and bathing. The Belfast Trust, staff and patient’s family members were forced to buy bottled water until NIW reconnected the supply late Boxing Day. But hospital staff were told they could not use the water for another 48 hours due to possible contamination. The health consequences of the water crisis have yet to be fully seen. GPs and nursing staff have raised major fears the current flu epidemic coupled with the onset of the winter vomiting bug, clostrosporidium, will be made worse as many homes have been flooded with raw sewage. To date there has been a 200% spike in the number of cases of swine flu in the North; many link this to people being unable to wash their hands as they normally would.
Who is to blame?
The political post-mortem of the water crisis will continue for months to come with Minister Conor Murphy stating that an inquiry will be carried out by the Utility Regulator. But the Regulator will not bring these swindlers to heel, as it is a toothless organisation only there to give the illusion of accountability. The Utility Regulator is the buffer and public relations face of NIW (and other privatised electricity and gas companies) and part funded by NIW. The Assembly Executive and in particular Conor Murphy were scrambling to distance themselves from the debacle, laying the blame solely at the door of NIW; specifically NIW Chief Executive Lawrence McKenzie who received a £97,000 payment for resigning. The revelation that McKenzie was being paid a £250,000 salary has also exposed the double standards of bosses who demand the rest of us have to practice responsible wage restraint! Conor Murphy though cannot shirk the fact that the ultimate responsibility lies with him and the Assembly Executive.
Water charges brigade reach new low
There has been a deluge of excuses for the cause of the crisis from the impact of the severe weather, communication problems of NIW and more importantly the decades of underinvestment. The latter point has been ceased upon by cynically by the media and bosses organisations in an attempt to push forward the arguments for privatisation and water charges.
Secretary of State Owen Paterson and some Assembly politicians have attempted to link this crisis to the “need” for water charges. Disgracefully, Paterson said “England and Wales did not experience the same catastrophe because the UK water service is run privately; the difference is the way that water is paid for in the rest of the UK and the way it is paid for in Northern Ireland”. This does not stand up to scrutiny however.
What Patterson didn’t say was immediately prior to the privatisation of water services in the UK in 1989 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invested £6.6 billion of taxpayers’ money to write off debts and invest into new infrastructure for the dilapidated UK water service. This investment never reached Northern Ireland, even though we paid for the investment in Britain and we were left to inherit a crumbling water and sewage service that was well over 60 years out of date.
Scrap NI Water
But the much needed investment will not be found through privatisation or the implementation of water charges. A report in The Independent in July 2010 exposed the type of service we could expect if the private sector were to run the water and sewage service. The exposé incredibly revealed that 3.3 BILLION litres of water is lost every single day through leakages. Yet the private water companies made revenues of £4.5bn in 2009 – doubling their profits in 10 years. The fundamental truth is the water crisis occurred because NIW was established as a means of privatising the service. Since the company was created outside the public sector, two thirds of the workforce have been sacked. Hundreds of specialists with years of experience were disposed. Over 50% of all water services have been tendered out to the private sector through the Alpha and Omega PPP projects. Out of seventeen water depots (essential for a proper functioning water and sewerage service) only six remain across the North. Multinational companies such as Farrans Construction, who have built around 90% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water treatment facilities, along with Dalriada Water Services and Glen Water Ltd have received up to £1.4billion of public funds. A further £3 billion of public money has been promised to these parasites in the form of PPPs by the Assembly Executive. The Public Accounts Committee review in 2010 identified over £30 million of public money was awarded by to private firms last year. This has been fully supported by the Department for Regional Development and the N.I. Executive. Shareholders of private companies are only interested in making profits not in providing a service for people.
The Socialist Party is calling for NI Water to be scrapped and the water service returned completely into the public sector. PPP contracts should be revoked and the profiteers unceremoniously kicked out of tour water service, including the bosses of NI Water. To ensure a service to meet peoples’ needs, the water service should be run democratically by elected bodies representing workers, local communities and public representatives. Private tendering should be immediately stopped and staff should be re-employed to deal with the wreckage NI Water bosses have caused.