Tens of thousands of households in parts of south-east England face the prospect of a Christmas without running water as suppliers struggle with burst pipes after a rapid thaw from last week’s freezing temperatures.
South East Water admitted that it could not guarantee all customers in Kent and East Sussex that water would be restored by the Christmas weekend, after a threefold increase in leaks.
Also on Wednesday, Southern Water said there would be restrictions to water supplies for at least 48 hours in parts of Hampshire, including Southampton, Eastleigh and Winchester.
It said: “We are currently facing significant pressure on our water supply in parts of Hampshire, caused by a combination of factors including leaks resulting from the recent ‘freeze/thaw’ event.
“This has meant demand for water is outstripping the ability of our water treatment sites to keep taps running.”
South East Water’s handling of the crisis was called “unacceptably bad and in some instances chaotic” by the former cabinet minister Greg Clark, the MP for Tunbridge Wells, which is one of the areas worst hit.
People have been forced to rely of intermittent deliveries of emergency bottled water in towns and villages across Kent and East Sussex. On Tuesday night at a Tesco car park in the village of Pembury people queued for more than an hour for a bottled water delivery that did not arrive.
Speaking to Kent Live, Clark said: “I have spoken every day with the chief executive of South East Water, David Hinton. I wish I could tell you that I am confident that reliable supplies will be resumed imminently, but I’m afraid I can’t.”
Clark, a former secretary of state for both business and levelling up, called for the government to intervene “to inject better capability” in the company to resolve the crisis. He said the failure to deliver bottled water was “farcical”.
The company’s incident director, Douglas Whitfield, told BBC Radio Kent that reservoirs were draining faster than they were filling because of leaks.
Asked if he could guarantee water would be restored by Christmas, he said: “I don’t want to 100% commit to that at the moment. I can’t do that.”
Meanwhile, neighbouring Southern Water said supplies to 20,000 households were being restored after a burst pipe in Broadstairs.
Both companies have apologised for the disruption.
In its latest update, South East Water said: “We’re so sorry if you still have no water, or low water pressure.
“The rapid thaw of frozen pipes has increased the level of bursts and leaks on our underground network of pipes, causing our storage reservoir levels to drop.
“It is impossible to predict which pipes will burst and where, and we’re working 24 hours a day to find and repair these bursts and leaks as quickly as possible.”
“We have also used tankers to inject more water into the system to keep supplies going for as long as possible. We’re seeing a lot of demand on the network and ask you to check your lofts, airing cupboards and outside taps for leaks if you’re able to.
“Our bottled water station and Arlington tanks at Crowborough are currently being refilled. We’re so sorry for the ongoing disruption.”
The Guardian journalist Anna Tims is one of the 20,000 residents of Crowborough. She said: “South East Water didn’t open an emergency dispensary in our town until yesterday, 36 hours after the supply failed and it closed after an hour.
“Supermarkets sold out of bottles by 7.30am on Monday. We’re down to our last litre bottle for drinking and washing.”
She added: “East Grinstead and Tunbridge Wells have had continuous emergency supplies laid on, but Crowborough, the largest inland town in East Sussex, has not. My 90-year-old friends down the road rang me in a panic because they didn’t have a drop in the house.”
Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet, urged constituents not to take their anger out on his staff in Broadstairs.
He tweeted: “As #Thanet water returns, I’m disgusted that a resident took anger out on @SouthernWater by banging on my constituency office door yesterday & shouting at team member, leaving her fearful of leaving office. I don’t control the 💦 company. Direct your anger at them, not my staff.”