OPINION: Building resilience and securing land tenure in the face of disasters

by Rebecca Ochong | Habitat for Humanity International
Friday, 23 August 2019 13:50 GMT

Saju Begum, a flood-affected woman poses for a picture inside her house in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, July 21. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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Without legal proof of ownership of the land they live on, the most vulnerable communities are often excluded in post-disaster assistance

For the 4.3 billion people living in the Asia-Pacific region – the world’s most disaster-prone region - much is at stake during the annual monsoon season, which brings torrential rains, floods and landslides.

Millions of people are affected in South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

Vulnerable families and informal settlers who have built their homes in hazardous areas are often hardest hit by extreme weather and climate disasters. Unable to show proof of legal land ownership, many also find themselves cut off from recovery services and housing assistance following catastrophes.

In Nepal, UN-Habitat reports that the Nepalese Land Administration System only deals with the statutory land tenure system, and does not cover informal land tenure― which comprises a quarter of the total arable land and settlements outside of the formal system.

Without legal proof of ownership of the land they live on, the most vulnerable communities are often excluded in post-disaster assistance and services.

Lessons learned from disaster recovery in the region shows that land is foundational to building disaster resilience. With secure land tenure, disaster-hit people can get back on their feet, start rebuilding their homes and livelihoods, and regain a sense of normalcy.

In responding to the devastating 2015 earthquakes and floods in subsequent years in Nepal, organisations such as Habitat for Humanity used geographic information system-based technology to map hazardous areas, assess vulnerable families, and advocate for access to safer land for housing.

As a result, the local government allocated $208,000 for housing support to 1,370 people who have been affected by disasters or are from marginalised communities, while $1.2 million from the federal government was designated for land and housing support to Nepal's ex-bonded laborers. Training in safe shelter awareness also helped Nepali families adopt disaster-resilient housing design and construction.  

Over in Tamil Nadu state in southern India, the Irula indigenous tribe has been socially excluded for decades, and traditionally lived in forests. Displaced to coastal areas, they made their homes in thatched huts, often along riverbanks and flood plains.

Helped by community service organisations to assert their right to land and housing assistance including livelihood and financial inclusion, more than 2,600 Irula families have filed applications for land titles. Among these families, over 200 have been granted land to build their homes.

A total of 55 new disaster-resilient homes have been constructed; 224 Irula families have obtained multi-purpose loans from national banks for the first time, and another 220 families have been granted subsidies to build sanitation facilities.

Women are another vulnerable group who can benefit from secure land rights, a central factor in ensuring adequate, stable housing for them and their families.

In Dhaka in Bangladesh, women have formed committees to upgrade their communities’ housing and make it a safer place to live. They have held consultations and dialogues with the local government and organisations such as Habitat for Humanity for improved access to water and sanitation facilities, and waste management initiatives. Even young girls have set up groups to advocate for menstrual hygiene while addressing other community issues such as early marriage and gender-based violence. These initiatives increase their legitimate claim to their rights to the land. 

Securing land rights is an important step toward promoting safe and affordable housing, and achieving resilience following disasters.

Fit-for-purpose land policies and land management systems that protect vulnerable and marginalised groups are among the building blocks. Such interventions should be realistic, affordable, and flexible to allow for incremental improvement over time in order to deliver security for a vast majority of people at scale.

Rebecca Ochong, Habitat for Humanity’s Senior Manager for Urban, Land and Housing Policy in the Asia-Pacific region

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