As cholera ravaged Haiti, UN peacekeepers around the world made a mess

United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world for years poured untreated or untested sewage into public waters or agricultural lands in some of the most ravaged countries they protect, failed to dispose safely of wastewater, sewage and garbage, and only sporadically kept the environmental safety and sanitation records that missions are supposed to report regularly for themselves and for U.N. headquarters.

The tally of negligence, disorganization, bureaucratic inertia and lack of accountability on sanitary and environmental issues -- as peacekeepers struggle to operate in extremely difficult and violent circumstances -- is itemized in more than a half-dozen audit reports by the U.N.’s watchdog Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), most of them published in the past 14 months.

The audit reports examined U.N. “waste management” practices in various conflict zones and found them “unsatisfactory.” The reports warn of serious potential environmental or health risks as a result of the U.N. peacekeepers’ actions -- or inactions -- as well as what OIOS auditors call “reputational risk” for the U.N. itself in consequence.

Taken together, they offer a blunt contrast to the U.N.’s own efforts to highlight, as one glossy PR document puts it, “positive efforts that have been undertaken to reduce the environmental impacts of U.N. peacekeeping operations.”

The rash of reports also indicated a scramble by the U.N. to come to grips with the self-created mess through new and updated environmental and waste management policies, more specific rules and guidelines (including some long in bureaucratic limbo), better training, and above all, better information about what peacekeepers have actually been doing to dispose of their garbage, human waste, and other environmental hazards.

One report notes that “these missions had not fully disclosed these deficiencies in their report” to U.N. headquarters.

A child is treated for cholera in an isolation ward in Juba, South Sudan, on June 25, 2015. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

A child is treated for cholera in an isolation ward in Juba, South Sudan, on June 25, 2015. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

In at least one embattled country -- South Sudan, where a new explosion of violence caused the U.N. Security Council  this week to authorize an additional 4,000 peacekeepers atop the current 13,500 -- at least some of the failings are still being kept under wraps.

All told, the reports cover activities in six countries, from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Lebanon, where there were 82,000 peacekeepers at the time of the various audits, and which include some of the world’s worst civil conflict zones.

(There are currently about 118,000 military police and civilian personnel operating in 16 peacekeeping missions around the world. The U.S. provides almost none of them, but pays 28.4 percent of the U.N.’s annual peacekeeping budget, or about $2.35 billion for 2015-2016.)

Couched in abstract bureaucratic language, the reports offer a litany of failings  similar to those outlined in another OIOS report on Haiti,  long suppressed by the U.N. but  examined by Fox News two weeks ago.

That document outlined an array of negligent sanitary practices by peacekeepers from 2012 to 2014, long after the world’s worst cholera epidemic exploded in Haiti in 2010.

The consensus among medical experts is that the Haiti calamity began with grossly negligent sanitation practices at a camp for Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers -- a small contingent of the roughly 9,000 peacekeepers and support staff then in-country -- that included the dumping of a tankful of contaminated human sewage into Haiti’s Artibonite River. The epidemic has so far killed 9,300 Haitians and infected more than 780,000, and is currently flaring up again.

The U.N. has argued that the epidemic’s cause is unproven, while it claimed immunity from a mammoth class-action lawsuit by Haitians who have suffered in the calamity. Late last week the U.N. hinted vaguely that it might produce a “new response” on the issue of its responsibility within the next two months. 

Medical experts consulted by Fox News emphasized that the Haiti crisis was a once-in-a-million disaster, in part because the country had not been exposed to cholera in 100 years, and Haitians therefore had no natural resistance to the vicious disease.

On the other hand, cholera and other potentially fatal, highly contagious gastrointestinal diseases, including typhoid fever, are rife in many of the countries where the U.N.’s blue helmets operate, and bad sanitary practices among newcomers can add additional dangers to the mix, especially given the multinational nature of peacekeeping forces.

(In mid-2014, substantial numbers of Nepalese peacekeepers -- none connected to cholera infection -- were involved, for example, in four major U.N. missions, in Darfur, South Sudan, Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

Some examples from the OIOS audits:

  • In Cote d’Ivoire, where some 7,700 U.N. peacekeepers, police and civilians were stationed, peacekeepers at 28 locations out of 31 inspected in the spring of 2015 had dumped untreated sewage water as well as  liquids from cooking, bathing and laundry “into open drains or gutters, which flowed into ponds, farmlands and private properties,” one audit notes. At an unspecified number of other locations, contractors working for the UNOCI peacekeeping force “deposited untreated wastewater in unauthorized, open and unsecured sites.”

At 27 peacekeeper sites, UNOCI septic tanks “were not properly maintained,” as the audit blandly put it. An unspecified number were “cracked, full of waste, uncovered or improperly covered and in some cases overflowing with wastewater.” Unsurprising, perhaps, since the auditors also found that in a third of their interviews with responsible personnel, none had been trained in the “effective management of waste.”


  • In Darfur (some 20,000 peacekeepers), an audit inspection that ended in January 2015 found that 20 water treatment plants out of 56 examined at 14 locations  “were not working due to lack of preventive maintenance and delays in repairs.” As a result, “partially treated wastewater was discharged into open fields, farms and open holes at the perimeter of team site compounds.” Even where treated, tests were not being done on the output at 33 or 35 locations, largely due to lack of technicians.

The result, the audit warned: “an increased risk of contaminated wastewater entering local streams and underground water sources,” exposing the already devastated population to “increased health risks.”


  • An audit carried out in South Sudan (about 10,300 peacekeepers at the time) from June to September 2013 -- but not published until June 2014 -- has an entire section redacted. Evidence from the remainder of the audit suggests the censored material could involve “the installation and repair of wastewater treatment plants,” and the training of their operators.

(In response to questions from Fox News about the censored portion of the inspection report, an official said, “we deemed that there was information concerning un-remediated deficiencies” -- U.N.-speak for lapses that hadn’t been addressed -- “that could potentially be exploited to the detriment of the Organization.”)

So far as other unsanitary practices were concerned, the auditors noted, the South Sudan peacekeeping mission “did not implement adequate procedures for the safe and environmentally sound disposal of solid waste in the nine Mission locations visited.” Garbage pickups were irregular, trash was being burned at public sites in contravention of regulations, and at two-thirds of the locations, local authorities had not signed off, at least officially, on the U.N.’s use of waste sites.


  • In Lebanon (about 11,000 peacekeepers), inspectors discovered in the summer of 2015 that peacekeepers were dumping wastewater from two of their 13 sewage treatment plants directly into the nearby ocean, as the peacekeeping mission considered the practice posed “minimal risk.” The mission also was failing to maintain septic tanks “adequately.”


  •  In Liberia (some 6,000 peacekeepers), an inspection last fall revealed that one peacekeeper sewage treatment plant in the capital of Monrovia (population: about 1 million) discharged treated water directly into local rainwater drains, and ultimately into a government-owned treatment plant, without checking whether the water was properly treated. Another treatment plant was out of operation for more than a year. And untreated effluent was dumped “at a location approved by local authorities.”

At 5 of 19 locations, so-called “gray water”-- previously used in food preparation, bathing and laundry -- was simply leaking away through bad plumbing, cracked septic tanks or other problems. In one case, it was flowing into a nearby local community. Peacekeepers were burning solid waste in “unauthorized dugout pits,” even though there were approved dumping sites nearby. The reason: they had neither garbage pickup trucks nor contractors to do waste removal.


According to a peacekeeping spokesperson, additional inspection visits were made to other peacekeeping missions -- in Somalia and a small Sudanese area known as Abyei -- that also discovered “improvements were required in the collection, transport, treatment and disposal of wastewater.”

Yet another OIOS audit report examined by Fox News looks at peacekeeping’s Department of Field Services (DFS) operations in New York and shows that the problems among peacekeepers on the ground have been matched by passive leadership and non-supervision of the sanitary issues from U.N. headquarters.

Among other things, the report discloses, the central bureaucracy has issued sketchy and unfinished policies, guidelines and standards with “insufficient detailed guidance and instructions to missions,” let alone organizational structure, to help them actually cope with “waste management” and other issues.

The centralized management additionally depended on “self-reporting” from peacekeeping missions to keep track of what was happening in the field.


The report, as well as others, makes clear that the “self-reporting” largely didn’t occur. The OIOS report on South Sudan, for example, notes that the mission’s last monthly environmental performance report prior to the June 2014 audit was prepared in July 2012.

The U.N. issued a much touted Environmental Policy in 2009 which, according to the OIOS report, “provides the overall framework for the management of environmental issues, including wastewater management.” Among other things, it directs that “missions shall not discharge wastewaters directly into streams, rivers or other bodies of water without prior treatment.”

These were followed the next year by Environmental Guidelines which, according to the OIOS report, “remain in draft form and have yet to be formally issued.” A U.N. spokesperson says, however, that they were “shared with all field missions for their use in 2010,” and “provide guidance on the management of wastewater and sewage.”

A new waste management policy for field missions also came into effect in September 2015 -- that is, after the spate of OIOS investigations.

The problem according to OIOS auditors is all that guidance so far hasn’t been specific enough to, among other things, “assist field staff in implementing the requirement to assess and address their needs with respect to waste management staffing, infrastructure and monitoring and reporting” -- or in other words, to do vital parts of their job.

That is, if staffers were available. The report on Cote d’Ivoire, for example, notes that the post of environmental engineer, “assigned the responsibility for overseeing the mission’s environmental issues,” was vacant from April 2014 to July 2015.

Staffing at peacekeeping headquarters also has left something to be desired:  the DFS Environmental Officer’s job, for one, was left vacant for 10 months in 2014, and only “temporarily filled” that October.

According to the U.N., most of the failings outlined in the audit reports from the field have since been addressed -- or almost.

At U.N. headquarters, new staff have been added, and “a new team established,” as a spokesperson put it, with leadership “to provide strategic direction across DFS and peace operations to improve environmental management and reduce negative environmental impact,” among other things.

How effective the new leadership will prove to be, of course, remains to be seen.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter:  @GeorgeRussell or on