Pune-based Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) was awarded the prestigious United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Land for Life Award on July 30 for its work in combating land degradation. The award is given every year on a global level to organisations who help communities suffering from the effects of land degradation, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Managing trustee of WOTR, Crispino Lobo, who received the award in Ordos, China, says that organisations cannot apply for the award themselves. “They have to be nominated independently. WOTR was nominated by the German government. The organisation grew out of the Indo-German Watershed Development Project (IGWDP) started in 1989, by Father Hermann Bacher, considered the father of the watershed movement in India,” he explains.

Speaking about the prize-winning initiative, Lobo, says, “The Union government has set an ambitious target of doubling farm income by 2022 but this will be impossible to achieve without combating land degradation. Around 57 per cent of land in India suffers from desertification. Hence, we need to teach farmers how to catch rainwater across landscapes, recharge groundwater aquifers and improve soil health.” In India, 60 per cent of the population depends on land and forests. Water is essential to their livelihoods, not just agriculture.

WOTR was awarded for its work across seven states in India, restoring 8,913 sq km of degraded land and directly and indirectly benefitting 1.38 million people. Besides their sustainable land management approach, water budgeting and micro-irrigation have made communities in drought prone areas more resilient and benefited at least 3,55,832 people. This has also reduced the rural to urban migration by creating substantial local employment opportunities in rural areas.

“WOTR has trained over 3,80,000 people from India and various countries across the world in natural resources management and watershed development (WSD). We have adopted a holistic, scientific and participatory approach to address rural poverty and water scarcity. Our focus has been on managing water demand, not just increasing water supply. We believe in creating practices that are sustainable and replicable on a large scale and that our work has global relevance, particularly in Africa and parts of Asia. The idea is to slow rushing water and help soil conservation,” says Lobo who has worked in this sector for over two decades.

WOTR, established in 1993, currently works in land restoration, poverty reduction and climate change adaptation as well as leads in capacity building, empowering vulnerable communities and women, and advocating its WSD approach at the state and national levels.

“We have been working in WSD for the last 25 years now, with most of our work being done in Maharashtra,” says Lobo, adding, “although it was setup by me, Fr Hermann and others, it is where it is today because of the 300 people working around India through the four organisations operating under the parent WOTR.”

The organisation was initially founded in Ahmednagar and the corporate office was later shifted to Pune.

“Combating land degradation is the only way, along with WSD, to tackle the problems thrown up by climate change in agriculture. This award reflects years of hard work by WOTR team,” says the organisation’s executive director Marcelle D’Souza.

The organisation was also praised by UNCCD. “The winners show that restoration of degraded land can halt distress migration that is driven by unproductive land resources. Families and communities are transformed and become more resilient towards climate change when job opportunities are created. When practices like these are amplified globally, sustainability, stability and security of all is possible. It only requires political will and decisive action against losing more productive land to desertification,” read the message sent by Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UNCCD, to WOTR.

And what does it mean to the 180 odd people working towards the cause in India? “Recognition and acknowledgment always makes you feel better. We feel encouraged to keep doing good work,” concludes Lobo.