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US report challenges Haiti quake toll

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 1 Jun 2011 14:09 GMT
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LONDON (AlertNet) - The official numbers of people killed or made homeless by Haiti's January 2010 earthquake have been challenged by a leaked report, commissioned by the United States, that puts the death toll at around a fifth of the Haitian government's figure of over 316,000.

International news agencies have reported that the study by consultancy firm LTL Strategies estimates deaths from the magnitude 7.0 quake at between 46,000 and 85,000, slightly over 2 percent of the population. The figures were calculated based on face-to-face interviews conducted in January in almost 5,200 homes across downtown neighbourhoods in the capital Port-au-Prince, according to the Associated Press (AP).

The draft report, dated May 13, questions the number of people left homeless by the disaster too, estimating that some 895,000 people moved into camps around the capital after the quake, and that no more than 375,000 are still in makeshift accommodation. That contrasts with figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has said the camp population peaked at 1.5 million after the quake, with 680,000 living in camps as of April.

The study's researchers found that nearly two thirds of houses designated as "totally unsafe" and more than 90 percent of those designated "mostly unsafe" have already been reoccupied, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The report, which looks at issues regarding building assessments and rubble removal, also concludes there was actually less than half the 20 million cubic metres of debris said by the U.S. army to be clogging the streets after the quake, AP said.

INCONSISTENCIES?

Reaction to the report has done little to clear up the confusion. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman told AP the study will not be released publicly until inconsistencies are resolved. "The first draft of the report contained internal inconsistencies with its own findings," Preeti Shah told the news agency. "We are reviewing these inconsistencies ... to ensure information we release is accurate."

And according to the New York Times, Washington seems to be backing away from the most incendiary claim about the number of deaths. Carleene Dei, a director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for which the report was produced, said in a statement that “any comment on the death toll of the tragic earthquake of January 2010, that affected so many, is beyond the scope of the commission and purely reflects the views of the author.” 

In Haiti, the office of newly inaugurated President Michel Martelly has yet to respond. But an anonymous government minister told AFP it was "curious" the new figures had appeared more than a year after the catastrophe.

"The official numbers that I am aware of remain the same and that is between 250,000 and 300,000 dead," the minister said.

An advisor to Jean-Max Bellerive, who was prime minister during the earthquake, told AP the study's findings were "hardly conclusive" and the death toll is likely to be much closer to the official government number.

In a blog post dated May 30, the report's lead author, Timothy Schwartz – an anthropologist who has also written a book critical of some aid work in Haiti – asserts that a low death toll estimate "should not be a surprise, not to anyone in Haiti".

Suggesting he is not free to discuss the report as it is not yet official, he goes on to chronicle the upward trend in the death toll estimates following the quake. According to this account, the numbers were calculated and rounded up without any defined methodology, as government departments dodged journalists' questions about where the data originated from and passed the buck.

AID EFFORT QUESTIONED

Schwartz says it seems "pretty clear that no one, not the government nor anyone else, had any idea how many people were killed."

"But the interesting thing is that, while I am not impugning any motivations, almost everyone who had anything to do with any type of official agency or NGO seemed deliberately bent on skewing the numbers as high as they possibly could,” he adds. “And they did so with total disregard for the evidence."

At the end of the blog, Schwartz defends his work, saying it was "simply a job I was performing with a team of some 20 university-educated professionals, including two other PhDs".

"But personally, for me, in terms of the tragedy, less is better. And at about 60,000 dead, that's still a huge tragedy," he concludes.

The contradictory figures are whipping up a storm because of the implications they have for the huge aid effort in the impoverished Caribbean nation and the billions of dollars that have been pledged to help rebuild it after the disaster.

"The report has the potential to be hugely controversial, since it speaks directly to concerns that international relief efforts create a culture of dependency and corruption," wrote Guy Adams in Britain's Independent newspaper. "Haiti is already often cited as proof that disasters, and the overseas aid spending they prompt, are all too easily exploited by dishonest locals."

While there has been little reaction from aid agencies, including the United Nations, an IOM spokesman told AP the report's researchers had used "a powerful methodology".

"But we are 100 percent confident that the people we counted are living in the camps," he added.

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