The One Thing Resilient Communities Need Most

Insecure land tenure increases the vulnerability of many households in Asia. Photo: Bino Le
Insecure land tenure increases the vulnerability of many households in Asia. Photo: Bino Le

By Anushree Deb

To be resilient, urban poor and informal households need secure tenure, which is a household’s right to reside on the land on which they are living.

By 2030, urbanization and economic growth could result in nearly 61% of the world’s population living in cities, according to a report from UNESCO. The Asia Pacific Region alone could have about 2.7 billion urban residents. This will be juxtaposed alongside increasing inequality, environmental concerns and growing infrastructure deficits, resulting in inadequate standards of living. In South Asia alone, 800 million people will see their living conditions decline sharply by 2050.

Asia and the Pacific accounts for 40% of global economic losses due to disasters and climate change. Small island developing states and least developed countries could lose up to 4% and 2.5%, respectively, of their gross domestic product annually. Historically, between 1970 and 2016, the region has lost $1.3 trillion in assets related to disasters and climate change, according to the United Nations. Despite this urgent and recognized need, the provision of basic services and infrastructure for urban poor and informal households, which could reduce their exposure and vulnerability to disasters, has been piecemeal and inadequate. 

In the aftermath of a disaster, losses in housing and infrastructure are significant, adversely impacting quality of life for urban poor households. In the absence of resilient and adequate housing, a family’s ability to retain and utilize assets is severely compromised. Despite global initiatives towards adapting and mitigating the impact of disaster risks, increasing resilience through urban low-income housing has not been adequately addressed.

Housing often accounts for a major share of monetary losses in disasters. Between 1991 to 2010, 12.7% of global disaster-related expenditures ($3.3 trillion) was dedicated to risk reduction, and 87.3% was spent on emergency response, reconstruction, and rehabilitation, with damaged homes accounting for the bulk of expenditures. Every dollar spent on mitigation saves four dollars in recovery and reconstruction. Yet the majority of projects focus on post-disaster rehabilitation rather than successful preemptive measures.

More often than not, urban poor and informal households live where they can afford to, with limited physical infrastructure, in areas inevitably more susceptible to hazards and in housing that is less resilient, often foregoing secure tenure. They are likely to incur more losses when affected by hazards as they have fewer financial resources and limited access to social safety nets to help recover from the impact. Without resilient housing, their livelihoods and assets are more exposed to extreme events, and they are more vulnerable to slow-onset stresses such as increasing temperatures and rising sea levels.

  Housing and land tenure are more than shelter, they are basic economic and social needs

To be resilient, urban poor and informal households need secure tenure. Tenure is a household’s right to reside on the land where they’re living. Secure tenure is the protection of this right to reside which is upheld by law, protected through relevant planning documents, and is without the threat of eviction. In the absence of secure tenure, households are less resilient, making them more vulnerable to evictions, and other socio-economic shocks.

In the absence of economic and social incentives to improve their living conditions, households continue to use inexpensive and readily available building materials to reduce their losses in the advent of a disaster or eviction. Limited access to formal housing finance, and restrictive governmental policies on ownership and land titling create further barriers for them to attain secure tenure.

Housing is more than physical shelter and is a prerequisite for developing resilience in urban poor and low-income households. It is a unit of economic production, the basis for accessing social welfare schemes, and an inheritable asset which improves quality of life. Increasing resilience towards climate change and disaster risks has little meaning when spoken without security of tenure; since in its absence, support through housing finance, community mobilization, and resilient construction practices has limited impact.

Policy responses towards secure tenure need to experiment with innovative forms of tenure such as community titling, public rental housing, rent-to-own housing, and affordable housing zones instead of exclusively relying on post-disaster rehabilitation and compensation-based interventions. By depoliticizing tenure and changing misconceptions that secure tenure equals absolute ownership, urban poor and informal households can be made resilient.