EXCLUSIVE: While the United Nations touted its efforts in Haiti aimed at ending the world’s worst modern cholera epidemic -- a calamity many experts assert the U.N. itself caused -- U.N. peacekeepers were blatantly violating their own sanitary rules for containing the disease, according to an internal U.N. report that was suppressed for months.
- Among other things, the peacekeepers for years after the cholera eruption began in October 2010:
- poured inadequately-treated sewage wastewater into Haitian public canals;
- ignored urgent laboratory warnings that some of the tainted liquid contained fecal contamination, as well as other indicators that it was improperly cleansed;
- ignored maintenance of water treatment plants at U.N. peacekeeper camps;
- failed to inspect water treatment plants, as well as septic tanks, as required;
- skipped vital chlorination of wastewater treatment sites and other disposal facilities;
- left abandoned camps laden with garbage and sometimes with toilets and septic tanks overflowing with human waste;
- failed to demand proof that contractors disposing of human sewage from peacekeeping latrines were actually depositing their cargos, as required, in government-approved dumping sites;
- allowed a garbage contractor, sometimes using substandard trucks that spilled parts of their load, to dump material at unauthorized open sites, including one close to a local water supply.
The stunning array of negligent practices are laid out in an 18-page audit report by the U.N.’s watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), titled, “Audit of waste management in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti,” which blandly declared that the “overall results” were “initially assessed as unsatisfactory.”
According to its cover page, the report was completed on June 30, 2015. Such audits customarily appear on the OIOS website about a month or so after their cover date; this one appeared without fanfare about a year late -- after being designated on the website for months as “withheld.”
Public withholding usually happens with OIOS reports that examine such things as U.N. security practices in terror-afflicted zones, where danger to human life could result from publication. In this case, questions sent to OIOS by Fox News last week about the reasons behind the “withheld” status, and why it was lifted, were unanswered at the time this story was published.
One reason why the Haiti audit report could be considered ultrasensitive, however, is that the practices it described were unfolding even as the U.N., faced with international concern about its role in the original cholera disaster, was deeply involved, as it still is, in elaborate programs to help Haiti control and combat the epidemic, which so far has infected more than 780,000 Haitians and killed 9,300 of them-- and is once more on the rise.
Most of those programs ignored or downplayed the mountain of medical evidence and expert opinion -- disputed mostly by the U.N. -- that the original source of the epidemic was a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers in the U.N. force known as MINUSTAH, whose very similar bad hygienic practices were the initial cause of the cholera outbreak, the first in Haiti in 100 years.
For its part, the U.N. continues to cite a 2011 study by a hand-picked group of experts -- some of whom have publicly changed their minds -- that pointed to the Nepalese as the cholera source but said the outbreak “was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual;”
The U.N. has invoked diplomatic immunity to shield itself from potentially massive lawsuits by Haitian families seeking compensation for lost family members and other ravages of the disease.
The audit investigation -- and its tardy publication -- collide head-on with the U.N.’s efforts to show that it is a big part of Haiti’s cholera solution rather than the cause of much of the problem, and raise additional questions about what the world body says it is doing in conference rooms and diplomatic venues, vs. how it behaves in the field.
The report says the audit was conducted from July 2014 to December 2014, and covered peacekeeper practices from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2014.
The gap between the end of that period of investigation and the June 2015 publication date also indicates a longer-than-usual delay in “finalizing” the document; that is, relaying its findings back to responsible U.N. officials and negotiating resolution of the uncovered issues.
As it happens, U.N. records show that start-point for the period of MINUSTAH peacekeeping activity that OIOS investigators were examining -- June 2012 -- was nearly six months before U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in December announced the advent of a multibillion-dollar cholera elimination mega-program across Hispaniola (the island incorporating both Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic), which he said would “take a holistic approach in tackling the cholera challenge.”
By that, he meant an emphasis on “clean drinking water and sanitation systems” as well as a vaccination campaign centered on Haitian urban areas -- largely a strategy that focused on social development as a means of disease prevention, rather than aggressive elimination of existing outbreaks, which was encompassed in a short term “operational plan” costing much less money.
At that time, the worst initial wave of the cholera epidemic had abated: some 7,750 people had died, out of more than 620,000 infected.
The ambitious capital-spending campaign, however, was already under-funded. The clean-water plan, the U.N. said, needed some $500 million for its first two years, with only $215 million forthcoming, including $23.5 million from the U.N. itself.
The Haitian government formally launched its $2 billion, long-range version of the National Plan for cholera the following February, coupled with a two-year “operational plan” cholera elimination program, while the U.N. chimed in again in November 2013 with “special initiatives that required MINUSTAH to support and coordinate with the government” in implementing the national plan.
By the time the auditors actually began their examination in July 2014 -- which was nearly four years after the initial outbreak -- Secretary General Ban was back in Haiti again, trying to breathe new life into both efforts.
The U.N. had been unable to raise $400 million for the first phase of the grandiose plan -- though it had spent more than $600 million over the previous 12 months supporting its MINUSTAH peacekeepers.
By that time, the Haitian cholera death toll exceeded 8,500.
The beginning of the OIOS probe coincided with the end of the period they were examining. What they found out about the MINUSTAH efforts to observe basic hygiene over the previous two years is depressing reading.
Among other things, the auditors noted that MINUSTAH’s Water and Sanitation Unit, along with an engineering section, had installed 32 wastewater treatment plants to make sure the blue-helmeted troops and police cleaned up after themselves, along with 38 septic tanks and 55 soak pits for liquid waste, and had trained staff well on how to use them effectively.
Staffers just didn’t do much after that to maintain them properly.
Filter “membranes” in the treatment plants were supposed to be cleaned “thoroughly” once a year; MINUSTAH records showed that fewer than half – 15 -- were cleaned in 2013, and only 10 from January to June 2014.
The treatment plants included ultraviolet lighting to kill bacteria that had to be changed after 9,000 hours of operation; MINUSTAH didn’t keep records to show it did any lighting replacement at all.
One result: over a 12-month period starting in May 2013 -- when there were roughly 6,200 U.N. troops and 2,600 U.N. police authorized for MINUSTAH -- laboratory tests showed that 23 of 32 tested water treatment plants failed to meet “eight key water quality parameters” for judging that the output was acceptable.
Wastewater samples from six of the plants also “contained fecal coliform” bacteria, associated with human feces. The acceptable level of fecal coliform for potable water is zero.
Moreover, the audit noted, at 7 of 31 sites visited -- the audit does not explain the absence of a 32nd site -- “MINUSTAH was discharging its treated wastewater into public canals,” including two where the canals ran through MINUSTAH campgrounds.
Among other things, the report noted, five pleas from MINUSTAH testing labs over 14 months, urging that treatment plants be “urgently maintained,” were ignored.
The same inattention applied to septic tanks and other filtration systems, where human waste was supposed to be periodically removed (known as “desludging”) and other maintenance performed.
The audit says that from May 2013 to June 2014, “an average of 21 sites” were supposed to be treated with chlorine -- which also kills cholera bacteria -- “but these recommendations were not acted on.”
MINUSTAH’s response to the cleansing directive, according to the report, was that the treatment plants and soak pits “did not need regular cleaning,” and the lab results “were based on wrong parameters.”
What OIOS inspectors observed during actual visits to the treatment sites, however, was disturbing.
At two treatment plants, holding tanks full of “black water” -- a mixture of urine and feces -- were overflowing. An unspecified number of septic tank manholes “either did not have covers or were covered by temporary materials.” At seven sites, “gray water” from showers, dish-washing and laundry was seeping into the surrounding environment.
When it came to local garbage haulers, MINUSTAH was, it seemed, more demanding, but for a long time no more effectual.
“On several occasions” the peacekeepers complained about their contractor’s unsatisfactory performance, on a contract that ran from June 2010 to the end of May 2013 -- and then was extended.
It wasn’t until the end of July 2014 -- not long after OIOS auditors arrived -- that the garbage contractor was suspended for a year.
According to the OIOS report, the contractor was dumping waste at sites “in an open area without protections from intrusion,” with one site close to water “used by the local population.”
A U.N. peacekeeping spokesman told Fox News that the reprobate hauler was “terminated for poor performance on solid waste management and not reinstated.”
The problems with sewage disposal could have been even worse than the garbage mess -- but it seems no one actually knows for sure.
MINUSTAH had contracts with two service vendors to clean septic tanks and dispose of untreated wastewater at two government-approved sites. Haitian regulations demanded that MINUSTAH drivers were supposed to get receipts from government officials to show that they had disposed of the sewage as required.
Instead, as the report notes, “MINUSTAH relied on sewage collection coupons prepared by the contractor at the time of waste collection from the Mission’s premises to confirm that the service had been provided.”
In other words, the peacekeepers accepted receipts more or less from themselves, testifying that the sewage had gone out the door, as evidence that it had been driven to the appropriate place and disposed of properly.
Moreover, the contract with the sewage haulers failed to include a no-notice inspection clause that would have acted as another check on the vendor until September 2014.
U.N. peacekeeping headquarters staff had ordered the no-notice inspection provision as far back as June 7, 2011, the report indicated. It didn’t happen due to “inadequate staffing resources.”
The receipt failure, the OIOS report notes demurely, “indicated that MINUSTAH was not adequately monitoring the disposal activities of wastewater contractors.”
The outcome was actually more grotesque than the wording indicates, as the most widely accepted reconstruction of how Haiti’s initial cholera epidemic suddenly exploded along the country’s vitally important Artibonite River was the casual dumping into the waterway of an entire truck-load of liquid human waste taken from the camp of the Nepalese peacekeepers.
Their native country contained a cholera strain that independent scientific analysis concluded was identical with the murderous version that suddenly appeared in Haiti, while some of the peacekeepers were anecdotally reported to be afflicted with diarrhea in their unsanitary and poorly maintained MINUSTAH camp.
As part of their finalized resolution process, the OIOS investigators wrote into the report that MINUSTAH provided a notice that a no-notice inspection had taken place on June 27, 2015 -- three days before the OIOS report’s final publication date.
Even at the time of publication, however, the OIOS report said the watchdog was still waiting on proof that two of its recommendations about fixing egregious lapses had actually been implemented -- new procedures “to ensure wastewater facilities were adequately maintained,” and that laboratory recommendations about treated wastewater quality “are being adequately acted upon.”
According to a U.N. peacekeeping spokesperson, “MINUSTAH provided all the needed evidence on the two recommendations long ago,” and OIOS quit demanding proof in October 2015.
Meantime, however, the struggle against cholera in Haiti goes on, with the disease seemingly regaining strength.
According to French epidemiologist Renaud Pairroux, a world-renowned expert on cholera who has carried out in-depth studies of Haiti’s epidemic, there have been more than 21,000 reported cases so far in 2016, along with 200 new deaths.
The long-term approach supported by the U.N. and the Haitian government, Pairroux believes, “mainly offers the appearance of a development plan” rather than a frontal attack on the disease.
Pairroux notes in a newly-published update paper on the anti-cholera battle that “most of the goals [of that plan] will not be achieved for decades” -- even though, in his professional opinion, the epidemic had decreased drastically by November 2013, and was ripe for total elimination if an aggressive approach to isolation and elimination of small flare-ups had been taken.
“If at that time, especially in April-June 2014,” his paper declares, “efforts had been concentrated on extinguishing the last outbreaks, cholera could have been removed from Haiti,” as disease-fighters had already done in a number of African countries where Piarroux had worked.
By the end of 2014, that moment had been lost, Piarroux’s paper argues, due among other things to the sabotage of urban clean-water-delivery systems by gangs seeking to profit from water-selling; Haitian government turmoil; and increasing donor fatigue.
Piarroux argues that the underlying problem, however, is a fatalistic acceptance of a version of the U.N.’s argument that it did not introduce cholera into Haiti, but rather that the epidemic erupted from cholera strains that were always present in Haitian waters --even though such strains had never before produced the toxins that cause cholera victims’ agony, dehydration and death.
Only a radical targeting of actual disease outbreaks, as opposed to a long-term development campaign to transform Haiti’s infrastructure, will change the situation, he concludes.
“The cholera epidemic is a crisis that has outlasted the patience of donor agencies,” he observes.
In fact, most of the U.N.’s current anti-cholera efforts are not looking very hale.
A $20.3 million “rapid response” plan to deal with emergent cholera cases this year, the U.N. reports, is only 43 percent funded, and “further support will be needed to sustain efforts and meet urgent needs.”
The world organization also says the ten-year Haitian National Plan for Cholera Elimination is only about 20 percent funded.