A watery end

Last week I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days in Doctor Ian Paisley’s old Westminster constituency, attending my brother-in-law’s wedding at the fabulous Galgorm Resort and Spa, near Ballymena. It was a marvellous occasion, in stunning surroundings and, I must confess, I shed a tear or two.

Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, though (I’m told I have a heart like a swinging brick), I should point out that the tears flowed when I was presented with the bill for two bottles of Ballygowan water, which I bought for two of the more abstemious guests. The hotel charged me £4.70 each for one bottle of still and one of sparkling.

£4.70! For a bottle of water! It’s enough to drive you to drink. Come to think of it, that would have been a much cheaper option, with a pint of beer and a measure of spirits both costing considerably less than the non-alcoholic beverage. It’s no wonder ‘the devil’s buttermilk’ is so popular in some parts.

This past fortnight, or so, has taught us all, I hope, how precious water really is. For too long we have taken it for granted. Indeed, so blasé had we become, that we tolerated tens of millions of gallons being lost day and daily to leakage from our ancient and crumbling network of pipes, at an estimated cost of £5m every year. But it has taken the recent crisis – which saw supplies interrupted to tens of thousands of homes – to highlight the extent of the problem.

Fending off calls for his own resignation in the wake of this latest fiasco, the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, says his focus at the moment is on ensuring that “the immediate lessons are learned and systems put in place.” The most obvious lesson, surely, is that our infrastructure is not up to the job or, to put it in modern civil service parlance, ‘fit for purpose’.

The Stormont Executive itself doesn’t look terribly ‘fit for purpose’ just now. I have no sense of a ‘cabinet’ pulling together on this issue, no sense of collective responsibility; if anything, the Schadenfreude of the minister’s political opponents is almost tangible, as they delight in his discomfort.

Having said that, Minister Murphy will do well to ride out this storm. Only last month, Stewart Stevenson stepped down as Scottish Transport Minister over his handling of the chaos on the roads caused by the arctic weather conditions. In his resignation letter, Mr Stevenson wrote that he “could have done much more to ensure that members of the public who were caught up in a difficult and frightening set of circumstances were better informed of the situation”. I would be surprised if Mr Murphy has not already come to the same conclusion regarding his own handling of our water crisis. It is for the minister to decide whether the hapless Chief Executive of NI Water, Laurence MacKenzie, should be the only fall-guy for this debacle.

So what systems will be put in place to ensure there’s no repeat of this winter’s shambles? We must await the outcome of the minister’s external inquiry into the incident to see what recommendations emerge.

Obviously there has been historic under-investment in the network – long pre-dating the appointments of Minister Murphy or the ill-fated Mr MacKenzie - for which we’re now paying the price. It must be equally obvious, though, that the substantial investment required to modernize the system is unlikely to be forthcoming from London.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has ruled out the introduction of water charges for another three years. Yet it is difficult to envisage any other way of raising the capital needed, not only to upgrade the system, but to maintain it.

I suspect that water – like just about everything else in our lives – is about to get a whole lot more expensive. I fear there will be more tears shed over its cost; next time, though, I won’t be crying on my own.