How property rights work in disaster zones

By Caroline Compton, JD (Hons) '13

Natural disasters damage and destroy homes and land vital to people's livelihoods, as well as killing owners and destroying land records. 

Extreme weather events are becoming more common and population growth means people are moving into increasingly marginal land. S

ecure access to land has significance for housing, food and production, as well as providing the basis for stable recovery programming.

Only 30 per cent of land globally is formally registered.

The poor state of the registry, large numbers of fraudulent titles and unclear transfer mechanisms can make identifying ownership and transferring property challenging at the best of times.

Disaster compounds these challenges.

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, the land titles office for the province of Leyte was washed away in a storm surge. Documentation for agricultural land redistribution and cadastre maps were lost. 

In such a situation, evidencing a legal right to land imposes many insurmountable hurdles.

Where land is held under customary law, as in much of the Pacific, the interaction of formal and customary systems creates additional complexity.  

Informal settlers, who often live on marginal and unsafe land, are more vulnerable to disaster than those with regular land interests. Their reliance on low cost, low quality materials exacerbates this marginality, which is why about 80 per cent of the homeless after the 2010 Haiti earthquake were informal settlers. 

Informal settlers and renters can be vulnerable in other ways. Following disaster, housing assistance is often allocated on the basis of ownership criteria, rather than actual housing needs.

The December 2004 tsunami killed 150,000 and displaced 500,000 in Indonesia. 

Initially, the recovery strategy provided only owners of destroyed homes with a replacement dwelling and owners of damaged homes with reconstruction assistance.