Identification & land tenure: The lasting impact of ‘natural’ disasters

25 April 2019
Photo credit/Leah Campbell, ALNAP.

Today marks four years since the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes struck, affecting about a third of the country’s population and destroying more than 800,000 homes, 16% of which have yet to be rebuilt. Earthquakes and disasters in general can have devastating effects, not only on people and infrastructure, but on access to necessary civil documentation that can inhibit access to humanitarian assistance overall. ALNAP’s new earthquakes lessons paper was launched in Kathmandu on 13 February 2019, where a range of actors, from municipal and national authorities to engineers and response organisations took part. The importance of access to documentation for crisis affected households was extensively discussed.

Photo credit/DIFID

To receive assistance, crisis affected populations need to be able to demonstrate who they are, where they come from and what was theirs before the crisis. Getting access to adequate assistance often requires that individuals possess government identification and land ownership documentation. Government identification [1] is a pre-requisite to the recognition of multiple rights: right to education, healthcare, freedom of movement but also to obtaining housing, land and property documents, making identification and land tenure intrinsically linked.

Loss of documentation in crises

Access to documentation is often hampered after an earthquake, due to the destruction of infrastructure and loss of hard and soft documentation. Following the 2015 Nepal Earthquakes, single women in Kathmandu were greatly affected by this. In circumstances where women were heads of households, about 50% had lost their citizenship certificates and about 25% their property papers. While access to documentation competes with an array of priorities during an emergency response – including access to basic needs such as food, water and shelter – documentation issues can only be ignored for so long, as problems caused by lack of documentation obstruct ongoing access to assistance more broadly.

Lasting impacts


Lack of citizenship or residency documents and identification can be particularly obstructive in the case of cash and on the ability of affected people to access their own capital. For example, ‘Know Your Customer’[2] regulations of financial service providers require users to present identification to access their services. And in some contexts, opening and operating a bank account, or even purchasing a SIM card, is impossible without valid identification or evidence of residency. So, what if assistance is solely delivered via mobile phone cash grants? Will all households without identification be de facto excluded, or will they have to wait until they regain identification before they access this kind of assistance? At the launch event, government officials highlighted the complexity of addressing this issue while continuing to deliver swift assistance. The increased uptake of cash transfers (which involve operation of ATM cards or verification of identification) across sectors should provide further opportunities to explore access to documentation as a humanitarian need. As these trends continue, humanitarians should ensure that lack of access to documentation does not prevent those most in need from accessing assistance.

Photo credit: Nayan Tara, UN Photo.

While humanitarians have been aware of the importance of documentation for a while now, they have yet to consistently and satisfactorily tackle the issue. Shelter practitioners in particular have faced difficulties here as, without documentation, land claims fall flat or face severe delays, which can in turn impede recovery and reconstruction. What we do know is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. No humanitarian organisation can solve the question on their own and efforts need to be coordinated across the sector and with government. The need for coordinated efforts in addressing lack of documentation and the issues it has caused in land tenure, is reflected in Lesson 9 of ALNAP’s new Lessons Paper: responding to earthquakes, and has appeared in previous iterations. In Nepal, for example, the 2012 National Shelter Policy, i.e. the basis for all reconstruction programmes, requires the government to provide low-income households or those who reside in unsafe settlements with land. This policy can however only be operationalised if and when those without secure land tenure can demonstrate who they are. Tackling lack of access to documentation is therefore a pre-requisite to then secure land ownership.

Land ownership

Humanitarian responses regularly take place in-country with pre-exisiting challenges and a high level of informality around land rights. This can hamper the response, especially in situations where humanitarians aim to cover emergency needs whilst also addressing longer-term structural weaknesses. In Haiti for example, humanitarian organisations set proof-standards for land ownership that were much higher than those that existed before the earthquake. Those requirements, which primarily intended to ensure inclusion of non-landowners, in fact resulted in loss of time and resources overall.

When landownership has been based on customs and practices, the disappearance of physical reference marks and boundaries as a result of the earthquake can make any claim (righteous or not) more complicated to address. For example, when the boundaries of your property were guaranteed by a centenary tree, a peculiar stone or an ancient fence, their destruction during an earthquake and the absence of documentation will likely weaken your rights.

Photo credit/Pierre Prakash, EU, ECHO.
Debris clearing

Clearing debris from damaged sites can also create tensions between affected people, desperate to hold on to any of these physical reference marks, and response efforts to clear away rubble. The recent ALNAP Lessons Paper stresses that debris clearing is one of the most urgent actions to make critical roads and rescue sites accessible. Undoubtedly, debris clearing actions will move quicker than recognition of land rights, making property claims of crisis affected households even weaker.


Speakers at the ALNAP’s Lessons Paper launch in Kathmandu, noted that lack of documentation can also impede reconstruction efforts. This was the case in Nepal, where land disputes following the earthquake delayed reconstruction efforts. Understandably, households who have been granted rightful claim over land will be more inclined to invest money, time and energy in rebuilding a house they know their children can inherit.

Nepal’s official reconstruction programme is due to end in December 2021 and it’s likely that many land disputes will last longer than this, which will result in many affected by the earthquake not being able to receive assistance to rebuild by then. A report supported by the Nepal Recovery and Reconstruction Platform, who hosted the launch, found that 16% of households in one district had still not started reconstruction due to land disputes four years on from the earthquake.

There is still a long way to go in resolving issues of land tenure and identification post-crisis to ensure that “no one will be left behind”. Shelter practitioners have begun to light the way, building their land rights expertise to ensure sustainability and efficiency of aid. In Nepal, beyond the National Shelter Policy, the ongoing digitisation of records and cadastral maps should make documents less vulnerable to shocks and earthquakes in particular. Furthermore there are ongoing efforts to raise awareness on women’s legal land rights and access to documentation including extending legal aid services so that women can gain their own citizenship certificates, a pre-requisite to then secure lands rights. In turn, “land rights bring about security, independence and confidence, which together enables women to become active in all social and political arenas and be more fully recognise as equals.


[1] Civil documents may include identity cards, birth certificates, marriage certificates, police records, etc.

[2] As per the ELAN Data Starter Kit, Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations, also known as customer due diligence, are designed to combat money laundering, terrorist financing, and other related threats to the financial system. They refer to the ID checks that financial institutions perform to comply with national financial regulations. Typically, KYC checks take place when customers sign up for an account or conduct a transaction.