It was called the worst disaster in modern history. A United Nations spokesman described devastation "like no other" ever faced by the organisation. News reports heralded scenes of Biblical devastation, complete with piles of corpses in the streets.

But how many people really did lose their lives when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti during the evening rush hour on January 12 last year?

Was the death toll in the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands? And did a mixture of cock-up and conspiracy result in the scale of destruction being dramatically overstated?

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) seems to think so.

In a leaked report, the organisation has concluded that the actual number of deaths in last year's disaster was somewhere between 46,000 and 85,000, well short of the estimates of between 200,000 and 300,000 made by most aid groups, and a fraction of the 318,000 claimed by the Haitian Government.

Numbers help to justify the vast and ongoing aid effort in which about US$5.5 billion ($6.7 billion) has been pledged to the impoverished Caribbean nation by overseas governments (but of which only a portion has actually been delivered). The numbers also continue to inspire private donations to about 3000 aid agencies which are still there.

The US report has not yet been published, but its alleged findings have already been disputed by Haitian authorities and the UN. Even the State Department in Washington is, for now, reluctant to endorse it, saying that some of the statistical analyses are being investigated before publication.

The draft was compiled for USAID by private consulting firm LTL Strategies, which claims to have arrived at its revised death toll by conducting interviews in 5200 homes in Port-au-Prince this year. Respondents were asked how many people died in each building, and where the survivors went.

As well as concluding that the death toll was exaggerated, the report claims the number of people made homeless by the disaster - estimated at 1.5 million by the UN - was in fact 895,000. And while UN officials estimate that 680,000 Haitians are still living in settlement camps, the real figure is closer to 375,000.

A third key finding suggests that the amount of rubble produced by the quake, which the US Army Corps of Engineers put at 20 million cubic metres, is in fact less than half that amount. The expensive fleet of trucks working to clear ruins may therefore be finished sooner than thought previously.

The report may be hugely controversial, since it speaks directly to concerns that international relief efforts create a culture of dependency and corruption. Haiti is already often cited as proof that overseas aidis too easily exploited by dishonest locals.

The man who led the survey, Dr Timothy T. Schwartz, has stressed that even if the lower end of his estimated death toll is accurate the quake was still a "huge" disaster.

"Intellectually, I really don't care how many people got killed in the earthquake," he wrote in a blog entry. "In terms of the tragedy, less is better. And at about 60,000 dead, that's still a huge tragedy."

- Independent