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The Indo-German Watershed Development Programme was initiated by Swiss-born Jesuit priest Fr. Hermann Bacher in 1989. It undertook pioneering work in promoting integrated watershed development as a means to combat drought and promote environmentally sustainable livelihoods. It was out of this initiative that the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) was born in Ahmednagar, in 1993. Bacher’s associate and co-founder of WOTR, Crispino Lobo spoke to CfB explaining the basic principles of their approach which has benefitted farmers in 1,000 villages across four lakh hectares and influenced the government to establish the National Watershed Development Fund  with a kitty of nearly Rs. 2,000 crore.

WOTR began basically as a capacity-building agency, as a networking and liaison, relationship-building agency with the government, because we were interested in policy changes and wanted to replicate the programme.

When we began, we did so with a very clear focus on watershed development. As the project grew and there were successes in the field, there was an increase in water, biomass and forests and the people now wanted other things. They wanted improvement in agriculture, livestock, women’s issues, etc. So we were forced to enter into other fields. Though we began as a technical agency dealing with hydraulics, soil and water conservation, we went into agriculture, women's empowerment, health, sanitation and several other things. But all along we focused on building capacities, inclusion of technology and framework for the large scale management of projects. You'll be surprised that 20 years ago we were using computers and data-based management systems, all developed in-house.

Fr. Hermann Bacher

The Indo-German Watershed Development Programme which was launched in 1989 by Fr. HermannBacher has probably covered some 350,000 -400,000 hectares in Maharashtra. I was with him from the first day to the last day of the programme and served as the programme coordinator for 13 years. Based on its success, the Germans funded similar programmes in other states. But for us, the biggest achievement was the setting up of the National Watershed Fund which could take it to other states in the country.

In 1989, very few NGOs were doing watershed development. There was substantial funding by the German government and the Government of India also gave us many exemptions. But our problem was how do you build capacities of NGOs to scale up? How do you build the capacities of villagers to implement the programme.

We had decided we will not compromise on quality. We realized that without quality there won’t be good and lasting impact. The Germans were very clear about that. So the thinking was, if people do not have the capacity to work to expected standards, build their capacity. The question was who would do it? We made a survey of various NGOs but none of them had the capacity. That is when we specifically set up WOTR to actually manage the Indo-German Programme and bring it to scale. That was our mandate.

Fr.  Bacher was already involved in rural development from the 1960s.  He would collaborate with government departments, banks, agricultural universities, etc.  to improve agriculture. The limiting factor for agriculture is water. They were in the drought-prone areas of Maharashtra- Ahmednagar district, largely. So they said, if water is the limiting factor, let us get water. So in those days you used to dig wells for water and he set up a groundwater investigation team with bores and drillers and everything which went all over Maharashtra.

He noted that wherever you brought water and green revolution techniques, electrification, etc, you would have success- until the next drought hit you. Then he realised that farmers were focusing on resource exploitation and not resource conservation and augmentation. We mined water, we did not recharge it, conserve it or harvest it. So Fr. Bacher had a brilliant idea- he said, look, let us change from resource exploitation to resource mobilisation which includes conservation and management. So where do you do it? Since the life of the hydrological cycle is based in the watershed, he said, trap rainwater wherever it falls in every watershed. Every village has a watershed. You can trap rainwater from the hill top to the valley following a simple mantra: "Water that is rushing, slow it down; water that has slowed down make it walk; walking water, stop it. If you can do that within the catchment area of a village, then you can harvest the maximum amount of water that is possible.

A whole series of interventions have to be implemented in a sequential, integrated manner - it has to be comprehensive, integrated and sequenced. To break the flow of water on the hilltops, you do continuous contour trenching (CCTs), create water absorption trenches (Wats), then you plant trees, grasses or shrubs to break the kinetic energy of the flowing water.  To harvest rain water you have to first stop soil erosion.

Anything that can break the fall of rain; spread it, soak it, distribute it and let it fall of gently would lead to watershed development. This includes, CCTs, Wats, aforestation, grasslands, changes in cropping patterns- but these are boring topics. It's always simpler to construct big dams, which also means big money and people can see that water has been stored. But often those are evaporation pans.

Secondly, if they are meant for recharge, within the second rain itself the porosity is closed because of accumulated silt. So they become evaporation tanks, not percolation tanks. But if you do catchment treatment and then do this, then you have not only got maximum water harvesting across a spectrum of area but you've also increased the longevity of these structures by several decades, because erosion is controlled.

When you build just dams,  only those around it benefit. But when you do watershed harvesting across the catchment, everyone benefits. Therefore, it makes perfect sense from a technical point and from the point of equity also. It is highly desirable to undertake a catchment approach, focus on area treatment which is largely soil conservation and then work on the drainage line which is construction of dams. If you do watershed harvesting in this way, then you are essentially making agriculture and livelihood sustainable.

Crispino Lobo (centre) in a meeting with villagers.

For all this, you need people's participation, you need to build local institutions that would be run by the people themselves to build capacities, to empower them and to guide them. This also brings in elements such as planning, implementation, organisation, accountability and transparency. That is why we insisted on setting up Village Watershed Committees, which is now called the Village Development Committee. And you need to bring a relationship with the Gram Sabha so that there is no politicking. In 2003, we got the government to recognise it as a sub-committee of the Gram Panchayat.

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