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Wasundhara approach to water conservation gets Kyoto award

Apr 09, 2009

At the fifth World Water Forum held last month at Istanbul in Turkey, the coveted Kyoto World Water Grand Prize was awarded to an Indian organisation. Dr Marcella D’Souza, spoke to OneWorld South Asia in this exclusive interview on various issues related to watershed management and village development.

Pune-based Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) has got the award in recognition of its outstanding contribution made towards organising rural communities for watershed development and rainwater harvesting in an inclusive, equitable, sustainable and gender sensitive manner.

The award was presented to Dr Marcella D’Souza, its Executive Director. In this interview, Dr D’Souza elaborates on the various issues related to watershed management and village development.


A physician by profession, Dr D’Souza chose to give up a lucrative medical career in order to dedicate her life to serving the poor in rural India. She is an alumnus of the Government Medical College, Nagpur and a Takemi Fellow of the Harvard School of Public Health. Of the almost 22 years of working in rural areas, six of these were spent on the mountains of Peru, South America. There she organised a large-scale community-led, indigenous knowledge-based healthcare system across vast areas of the South Andian Peru.

While working as a programme coordinator with the Indo-German Watershed Development Programme (IGWDP) in Maharashtra, Dr Marcella was responsible for developing pedagogies for empowering women through self help group formation and federation at the village level, as well as mainstreaming women into the decision-making structures of the village. The methods she developed are now widely adopted.

She has also been actively promoting renewable energy in rural areas. Also an educational effort that trains and equips youth to identify and secure sustainable nature-based and other livelihood opportunities that do not damage the local environment. As Executive Director of WOTR, she introduced an even greater inclusiveness of the poor and marginalised through various tools that give them a greater say in village development.

Here are the excerpts:

OneWorld South Asia: How significant was the 5th World Water Forum held in Turkey?

Dr Marcella D’Souza: The World Water Forum attracted the largest ever gathering of well over 33,000 attendees including delegates from 155 countries. The Kyoto World Water Grand Prize received 67 entries from all over the world. The 10 finalists made their presentation before a jury of 12 international experts in the water sector.

India’s WOTR emerged as the winner. It assumes huge significance as it is the world’s premier water award given to successful grassroots initiatives that are innovative, replicable and sustainable. Organised by the World Water Council, The World Water Forum takes place once every three years.

This year saw a large congregation of world leaders, educationists, economists and environmentalists from across the globe engaging in discussions and debating on key issues like raising the importance of water on the political agenda, supporting the deepening of discussions towards the solution of international water issues, bridging the various divides in the 21st century by formulating concrete proposals, bringing their importance to the world’s attention and generating political commitment.

OWSA: What exactly is the Wasundhara approach for which WOTR received the Kyoto Award?

MDS: Wasundhara in Sanskrit translates as ‘the earth’, and it connotes compassion, caring, co-responsibility and harmony. The approach was developed after many trials and errors and in the wake of an important question that we asked ourselves which was that why shouldn’t we empower the villagers to do something for their own selves instead of simply managing the programmes ourselves in the role of either an NGO or a government agency.

Therefore, envisioning the development of their village, the local community is guided to assess needs, set priorities, and identify government schemes and projects to fund these and prepare project plans. An action plan emerges wherein responsibilities are affixed. This process is phased over a period of 3-4 years.

The outcome of such an approach creates the necessary dynamics and incentives for the Village Development Committee, the Samyukta Mahila Samiti (apex body of the women’s self help groups) together with the PRI (Panchayati Raj Institution) to demonstrate their ability to shoulder the development of their village. Tools and strategies (such as wealth ranking) are put to use that provide a positive discrimination in favor of the disadvantaged. The abilities of the capacity building organisations are developed in technical, managerial, social, accounting and reporting skills.

The ‘Wasundhara’ approach is being implemented in over 60 villages since the last three years with far-reaching impacts. It has resulted in promoting equity, gender sensitivity and sustainable development.

OWSA: Could you elaborate about the activities undertaken by WOTR?

MDS: WOTR was established in 1993 to undertake holistic and integrated developmental activities for poverty reduction in resource-fragile and rain-fed areas in India. We help trap the rain to regenerate the forests and enrich the environment, for the people and by the people who live there.

The main focus areas of WOTR are capacity building of village groups and NGOs for participatory watershed development, integrated farming systems (agriculture, horticulture, livestock, organic farming etc), self help promotion, direct implementation of watershed projects, micro enterprise promotion, training and extension for organisations and practitioners, development of concepts, pedagogies, training manuals, awareness generation tools, advocacy, documentation and action research.

More recently, WOTR has started its School for Sustainable Living and Livelihood (SSLL) and has initiated work in renewable energy (designed a clean stove using agrowaste pellets and promotion of solar home lighting systems).

OWSA: What have been the policy impacts of the work done by WOTR?

MDS: We designed and implemented a focused and integrated capacity building programme known as the Participatory Operational Pedagogy (POP) as a prelude to and necessary condition for large-scale project implementation. This practice of capacity building as a separate, prior and integral component of watershed development is now accepted and adopted by other programmes in the country.

We have also developed and operationalised a process called the Participatory Net Planning (PNP) method for involving the farmer couple in the development of their farms and lands. This method is now a common practice in many major watershed programmes and is increasingly seen as a tool not only for planning but also for people’s mobilisation.

Concepts and processes developed and adopted by WOTR and the IGWDP such as ridge-to-valley treatments, site specific and community determined measures, people’s ownership and civil society-public sector partnership have been incorporated in government-run watershed programmes. Permission to treat degraded forest land was also obtained by WOTR for the IGWDP.

This was a singular achievement as such lands come under the purview of the Forest Conservation Act. More than 1,20,500 villagers and many NGOs, government officials, NABARD officials and over 300 participants from other countries have availed of WOTR’s training and exposure dialogue programmes so far.

OWSA: What has been WOTR’s role in women empowerment?

MDS: The last decade has seen a huge change in the lives of rural women. Even in the mid-90s, there would be just two of the oldest women of the village accompanying me as I sat together with my (all male) colleagues for the Gram Sabha. The rest of the women would peep from behind the doors and would chat with me later.

Slowly we all graduated to women having a 33% representation in the Village Watershed Committee (VDC), taking a cue from the mandatory 33% representation in the Gram Panchayat. Today there are approximately 40-45% women in the VDCs. The self help groups played a major role in giving the women the opportunity they required.

As women got engaged in watershed development, they began to assert themselves and consciously, even at a price. Proudly, women of many villages say (and this time in front of the men folk and in public), “This watershed project has come to our village because of us. We did the requisite shramdaan that was the demand of the project.”

Today, they tell us of the cost of a drinking water project or a sanitation project and the cash equivalent of the amount they have contributed in kind, labour and cash. They talk of how they maintain records and accounts and collect the fees for any activity that is under their responsibility.

OWSA: What are the environmental challenges of the future?

MDS: We are now actively engaged in issues related to climate change. Our major area of intervention is in building the adaptive capacities of rural communities to respond to the effects of emerging climate changes by regenerating the eco-systems they live in, diversifying livelihood sources in order to reduce risks, and adopting new agricultural and renewable energy technologies.

We are also promoting eco-tourism as a way for urban people to know and understand rural realities and bridge the divide between the two. We also want to impress upon young minds the need to be concerned about our environment. One of our recent initiatives has been to train rural youths in news reporting skills so that they can help provide exposure about rural issues through the media.

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