OZD, Hungary (Reuters) - Thousands of Roma have been queueing in a Hungarian town for water during a record heatwave after their mayor shut down many of the public pumps on which the impoverished community depends.
With temperatures peaking at 40C (104 Fahrenheit) for several days, the Hungarian government intervened on Wednesday, ordering Mayor Pal Furjes to restore full water supplies to slums in the northeastern town of Ozd where the Roma live.
Local Roma expressed sarcastic disgust about the mayor's decision, which they said had been made without any warning. "I can fill this bucket up with my own spit before this trickle does," said Gyorgy Kiss as he stood at a pump that remained open but had little water pressure.
"We thank the mayor very much. Next time he should shut down our air supply, too," said Kiss, a father of five sons.
Roma suffer discrimination and persecution across much of Europe. On Tuesday, a Hungarian court jailed four neo-Nazis for killing Roma families in a spree of racist violence in 2008 and 2009 that shocked the country and led to accusations that police had failed to protect the minority.
Roma often live in miserable conditions without power or mains water. This forces them to trek to public pumps with buckets to collect water for washing and cooking.
However, Ozd's municipal government closed more than half the town's pumps and restricted pressure to others, accusing local people of abusing the free supply by spraying water around. This had left the town with a 12 million forint ($53,400) annual bill it cannot afford, it said.
Interior Minister Sandor Printer told Furjes on Wednesday to reopen all the pumps. "(The government) called upon Ozd's mayor to suspend the municipal decision and restore the original state of affairs due to the extreme temperature," he said in a statement.
Roma make up 7 percent of Hungary's 10 million people, and a third of Ozd's population. They have suffered particularly since Communism collapsed in 1989 as much of the region's heavy industry has shut down, leaving most jobless.
Furjes, who is from the center-right Fidesz party that rules Hungary, said he needed to halve the town's water bill. The decision had been a long time in the making and had nothing to do with the heat, he told Reuters.
When the pump outside his home was shut last month, unemployed Roma Laszlo Radics took no chances and had his ailing mother moved to his sister's house.
Radics, 56 and himself in poor health, now lives alone and relies on neighbours to fetch buckets of water several times a day to help him through the heatwave.
"It's crazy that they shut down the water," Radics said as half-naked children ran around in the dirt nearby. "They are right in that the kids used to splash and spray a lot of water, but now we are forced to go far further to other pumps."
Many Roma have sought alternative ways to supply their houses with heat, water and electricity.
Kriszta Bodis, an activist who has worked with the Ozd Roma for decades, said water was just one of several similar problems affecting the poorest. In winter, they got into trouble for stealing wood to keep warm while in the summer, it was water that caused problems, she said.
"The city council has tried to satisfy voters' needs that are not rooted in reality," Bodis said. "They want to stop the Roma from stealing water, but nobody is stealing anything. They are public pumps."
She said the solution would entail piping water into Roma homes with a pre-paid meter system that is already tested with electric utilities. "I don't see why limiting access to water was necessary. There is a solution, even if it's a complex one."
($1 = 224.8394 Hungarian forints)
editing by David Stamp