The Stormont executive is due to meet in emergency session as pressure mounts on ministers to sack senior managers of Northern Ireland Water over their handling of the leaking pipes scandal.
First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will take charge of the talks at Stormont Castle after discussions with Secretary of State Owen Paterson, who has been in contact with the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) to see what assistance the Government can provide.
It could be the weekend before all burst pipes are traced and repaired, and in the meantime tens of thousands of customers across Northern Ireland face further disruption to supplies.
Lorryloads of 160,000 litres of bottled water which arrived from Scotland on Wednesday night are due to be distributed as part of contingency plans to try to ease the plight of so many families, many of whom have been without water since before Christmas.
The possibility of bringing in additional tankers supplied by Defra is one of the measures likely to be discussed at Stormont, but ministers are anxious to bring the emergency to an end before hundreds of schools reopen next week.
The delayed reponse by NIW has caused public outrage and the future of chief executive Laurence McKenzie, who has already admitted serious shortcomings in the company’s communications strategy, is expected to be raised as well. The executive is furious with the initial reaction to the emergency and John Dallat, a member of the SDLP at the Stormont Assembly, has called on Mr McKenzie to resign.
Mr Dallat said: “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 snowflake. 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.”
Leisure centres have stayed open to provide showering facilities and some GPs have warned that the crisis over the lack of clean water risks causing a major health alert.
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.”