A guest post by Robert Oberndorf, Resource Law Specialist, Tenure and Global Climate Change Project
As the full impacts of Typhoon Haiyan become apparent, many commentators are linking this tragic event with concerns regarding the long-term impacts of global climate change. On the opening day of the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, the Philippines’ lead negotiator, Yeb Sano, made an emotional speech on this topic. As the global community discusses how to improve the climate resilience of communities, important lessons related to tenure governance concerns should be considered. Many of these lessons can and should be applied in the Philippines as it recovers from the typhoon.
In addition to the staggering death toll from the typhoon, which is largely a result of the 16-foot storm surge that struck the most exposed areas in the storm’s path, it is reported that more than three million people in the Philippines have been left homeless. Many of these people lacked secure tenure before the storm and are now left in a position where they likely have no evidence to prove their land and property rights claims. This vulnerability is highlighted by growing allegations that some developers are claiming large tracts of previously occupied land in storm-affected areas and threatening to evict the current occupants. The lack of property records and the washing away of property boundaries must be recognized as critical post-disaster issues and addressed as communities shift their focus from immediate survival necessities to long-term rebuilding.
Issues that need to be addressed in the rebuilding process to ensure that the land tenure and property rights of vulnerable groups are not impacted negatively include:
- Inheritance: In instances where property owners have died, clear procedures need to be put into place to ensure the fair and transparent transfer of rights to the next of kin.
- Property rights clarification: Due to the destruction of residential property and lack of property documentation, there is an increased probability that claims to land could be contested or unclear. To allow for a more rapid resettlement and reconstruction process, a property claims process should be considered that leverages pre- and post-disaster satellite imagery and allows for the identification and vetting of property claims.
- Land property records: Individuals and households have likely lost their personal records of land property ownership, if they existed to begin with. It is likely that records held by local or regional governments could have been damaged or destroyed. In the future, disaster-resilient record keeping should be developed, and multiple back-ups should be properly stored for insurance purposes (both hard and soft copies).
- Climate resilient infrastructure built during reconstruction: If hard infrastructure, such as drainage culverts, sea walls, etc., are built to limit the physical impacts of future storms, they could potentially negatively impact existing land tenure and property rights claims. If that occurs, processes must be established to compensate individuals for the loss of existing rights.
- Effective land use planning: Some populations were located in areas that were inherently vulnerable to storm events. To lessen the costs to society of future natural disasters, there are certain steps the government can take, including establishing and enforcing effective land use controls, guaranteeing secure land tenure rights, and codifying strict building codes that combine climate resilience and locally appropriate methods and materials. Where changes in land use negatively impact existing land tenure and property rights claims, processes must be established to compensate individuals for the loss of existing rights.
According to Tim Fella, USAID’s Land Tenure and Conflict Adviser, “Land rights and land use planning are integral aspects to post-disaster planning and response. Not only does it help facilitate a more rapid and organized resettlement process; it can also contribute to increased resilience to future natural disasters.”
With strong political commitment, improved governance, and assistance from the international community, the communities of the Philippines that were negatively impacted by this event can and should be rebuilt in a more climate resilient manner. Lessons can be learned from other communities that were decimated by similar storms but were rebuilt in ways that lessened the impact of future disasters.
In 1900, the island city of Galveston, Texas, which was only 8.7 feet (~2.6 meters) above sea level at the time, was hit by sustained winds of over 140 miles per hour (225 kilometers per hour) and a storm surge of over 15 feet (4.5 meters). Much of the city was destroyed, and an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people died (more than 20% of the city’s population). Though devastated, the city of Galveston rebuilt, raised the height of the entire city by 17 feet (almost six meters), and constructed a seawall that today spans ten miles (16 kilometers). The investments in climate resilience proved their worth just 15 years later when a similarly sized hurricane killed only 53 people and caused a fraction of the property damage sustained in the 1900 storm.
Today, USAID is integrating climate resilience into its infrastructure and land-use planning investments. The governments of the U.S., Spain and Costa Rica have led the Adaptation Partnership, a two-year global effort to share knowledge on mainstreaming climate change adaptation into development planning. This partnership spawned a community of practice on climate resilient infrastructure, as well as pilot activities in vulnerable locations. USAID investment and associated technical expertise will be crucial to help promote climate change planning in the urbanization processes underway across Africa and Asia.
History shows us that steps can be taken to properly rebuild the communities impacted by Typhoon Haiyan, but the people of the Philippines and the international community should insist that steps are taken to ensure that this process increases climate resiliency while minimizing negative impacts on property rights and compensating those whose rights are negatively affected.