WOTR - Bringing Life to Lives - Dr. Marcella Dsouza - Interview


Online Link: http://www.csrtimes.com/interviews/wotr-bringing-life-to-lives-dr-marcella-dsouza-interview/20


CSR Times – What made you get into development? Can you just give us some details about your journey?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza - I am a physician by training. My focus primarily is community and public health. During my internship in a rural outreach center, I noticed people were sick mainly because of poor nutrition, poverty, lack of sanitation and hygiene, lack of health information. Hence, rather than curing diseases, I felt urged to reduce the causes of unnecessary diseases. After living for two years with the Kurku and Gonds tribal to understand their lives, I had an opportunity that took me to the Andes where I spent six years as a physician in Peru, South America. Here with a local NGO we started a health program training community health workers to reach out to remote indigenous communities in a holistic and integrated way. On my return to India, the Watershed Organization Trust (WOTR) invited me to join them. As WOTR’s work is in semi-arid rain-fed rural regions, I found that the organization’s mission matched my own. And so, eagerly I joined WOTR in 1995.

CSR Times – We believe you work in 6-7 states in the country. On a trip to Muragao, Chhattisgarh, about two and half years ago, I noticed that the water was contaminated. We did surveys in 22 villages and found that all the samples of water were not drinkable. Also there are issues of malnutrition, poor health and education in many states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Please share your work with WOTR.

Dr. Marcella D’Souza– WOTR works in the semi-arid and rain-fed regions, where the land is degraded and deforested. We work at regeneration of the watersheds, to improve soil conditions, and water retention so that agriculture is productive. All this is with the active participation of the local communities. While we did watershed development and have tangible results to prove, since the year 2000 we observed weather varying conditions. The rain was playing truant. Monsoons were delayed, rainfall erratic and unseasonal rainfall, sudden very heavy showers…. So despite the good watershed treatments, agriculture was lost because of frequent weather variations. To address this we began setting up automated weather stations, started water budgeting, improved sustainable agriculture, providing site specific crop and locale specific agro-met advisories. These help the farmers have better crop productivity. So since 2008 we have focused on Climate Change Adaptation that addresses development in an integrated and holistic manner. WOTR is mainly into knowledge management. We develop pedagogies and tools for large scale application, after substantially testing these on the ground (implementation of projects). We believe in putting good systems into villages and also use software created (in-house) to address the implementer’s needs. We conduct research so that the projects designed based on ground reality.

CSR Times - Can you just throw some light on watershed development and what exactly is it?

Dr. Marcella D’Souza – A ‘watershed’ is a catchment area for the rains, beginning from the hilltops and upper reaches to the valley and flat lands below. Rainwater flows down in small nullahs, into little streams, which join to become a rivulets and a river. When the land is barren – degraded of grasses and tree cover, top soil is lost with winds or a downpour. Any rainfall contributes to land degradation, and water just flows off, leaving the area water scarce following the monsoons.

Watershed development is treating the land from the ridge line above to the plains below. Continuous contour trenches, small barriers are constructed to prevent soil erosion and various drainage line treatments that help store water underground. Tree plantation and promotion of the local biodiversity are important components. Thus, in watershed development we increase soil and water conservation to make the land more productive, so that agriculture and livelihood opportunities are increased for the people who live there.

CSR Times - Let’s take an example of the dry areas in Rajasthan, the Thar area from Jodhpur, passes through Jaisalmer up to Bikaner. Do you see any solution that we can provide them through your efforts?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza - Ravine and deserts are wastelands have problems like Extensive soil erosion, low soil nutrient and moisture; the topography is difficult and low soil fertility.

A different approach needs to be taken in these areas -


Khadin: An Oasis in Desert: Khadin is a water harvesting system used for runoff farming on stored soil profile moisture. Khadin is a system of growing crops on harvested and stored water by constructing an earthen bund across the gentle slope of the farm in the valley bottom. The runoff water from the upper catchment area is arrested with the help of Khadin bund during monsoon. The water gets formed in Khadin and comes over the ground, which gradually recedes into the subsoil during winter and thus continuously supplies moisture to the deep roots of the crops.


In desert the dependency of drinking water is on rains.

Tanka (family based DWS): Tanka is a rainwater harvesting system where rainwater from rooftop, a courtyard or a natural or artificially prepared catchment is directed to an underground tank. Tanka is built to collect and store rainwater, which is meant for drinking purposes of a family or a small group of families.

Naadi (Community based DWS): The Naadi or the village pond is the structure that serves the drinking water needs of human beings and the livestock as also of the wild life. It comprises a large sized catchment, the down slope of which is excavated a big pit to store the runoff. The excavated earth is piled up as semicircular bund along the edge of the bund to check water flowing out of the pit.

Beri (Percolation well): Beris are shallow, small diameter percolation wells. Beris occur in two situations. In one case these are dug in the bed of the Naadi or khadin. The other situation is sandy terrain in the highly deserted part.


Various agroforestry systems are suitable for arid and semi-arid regions with special focused on sand dunes stabilization like -

Agri-sivlicuture systems are a combination of Agri crops and trees on the same piece of land. Plantation of Multipurpose trees on the field in Scattered form which provides fodder and fuel. Plantation of Agri crops and Horticulture in the same piece of land and Shelter belts/blocks consisting of several rows of trees established at right angles to the prevailing wind etc., are some of interventions and approaches taken in desert areas.

CSR Times - Apart from watershed development, sustainable agriculture, agro meteorology and water budgeting WOTR is also into alternate energy, health and nutrition, women empowerment. Will you tell us something about it in detail and also could you enlighten us on the roles of the two sister concerns of WOTR?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza - Let me explain more about WOTR. We have interconnected thematic areas that we work on with watershed development as the base. Once soil is retained and water harvested, it is necessary to manage the water with like water budgeting and take up sustainable agriculture practices. These form an integral component of climate change adaptation that has watershed development as its key. So unless we address the issues of a changing weather pattern we cannot make watershed development sustainable and impactful. The key pillar on which WOTR works is a climate change adaptation model with watershed development as a key. In order to enhance the productivity and respond to climate changes we need to work on sustainable agriculture, through water budgeting, and managing energy. In watershed development we grow trees and look for an alternate for cooking fuel to avoid cutting trees that will affect climate changes. We encourage women organized in self-help groups to be able to contribute proactively because their capacities are needed in the village watershed committee and the gram panchayat to be effective.

Our sister organization Sanjeevani Institute of empowerment and development (SIED) works extensively as an implementation agency of concepts through pedagogy that are developed by WOTR. SIED is mainly the implementation wing for the methodologies and approaches developed in-house. Our sister organization, the Sampada Trust. The trust was formed in the early days when during a development program the women who were organized in SHGs wanted micro-credit. We realized that taking and repaying loans from banks in 1996-97 was a big problem. This is what motivated the setting up of Sampada Trust. Today Sampada Trust empowers women through SHGs, links them with micro-insurance, and focuses on entrepreneurship development. It offers trainings for livelihood activities An. The Microcredit lending is now moved into the Section 25 Company the Sampada Entrepreneurship and Livelihood Foundation (SELF).

Apart from the dearth of livelihood options, there were several health issues that women drew our attention to. So we introduced growth monitoring of little children and nutrition program for women. We train women health workers and link our effort to the Anganwadi program. Our health workers are introduced to the local primary health centers. We also get the support of the local rotary doctors as and when required. We promote kitchen gardens, safe drinking water, and sanitation. While men claim that watershed development has increased agriculture productivity and they are earning better, women state the positive impacts in terms of how their health, nutrition, water, and sanitation have improved.

Another very important issue that the Sampada Trust works on is correcting the skewed sex ratio. What we also realized is that we cannot address the issue of a poor sex ratio or empowering women unless we work together with men because men too are victims of society as much as a woman is. It’s a gender related problem, so our whole objective is to work with the men, empower them and help men to respect themselves and to respect women. We simultaneously work with the women too. This project is titled, ‘Give the Girls a Chance’. Currently we are working in 24 villages. Through several awareness sessions we made the whole village understand the impact of sex selected abortions. We work with the newly married couples to help them understand and appreciate respect and dignity for oneself and each other and to accept girl child just as they would accept the boy child.

CSR Times - How is your organization helpful to those companies who are into CSR and prefer social business models?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza – I observe two types of social business models being followed. First is the type of social business model which helps individuals to benefit e.g. livelihood interventions and the promotion of agriculture for particular types of crop. The second type of CSR model brings benefits to a whole village sustainably and which has a long term plan and vision, for example improving the natural resource base (soil and water conservation, land capability). When the villagers can handle weather related problems like droughts and unseasonal rains they will get good returns. Hence supporting projects such as climate smart watershed development through corporate social responsibility will be a direct contribution to the rural community. It will prevent ecological refugees, migrating to cities during droughts. It can help people get out of poverty by increasing their purchasing power sustainably. I am very glad that the sustainability angle is important for CSR.

CSR Times - Do you co-partner with any other NGO or WOTR conducts the operations individually?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza – Since its establishment in 1993, WOTR has always worked in partnerships. In our role as a Capacity Building Agency for WSD we partnered over 100 NGOs in Maharashtra, and also in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha. We work in partnerships and in consortia with other NGOs and agencies in research projects. Our national training programs are open to all NGOs and other institutions – government, corporates etc., and many NGOs have benefitted from these over the years. We also learn from other NGOs and agencies. However, when we implement projects, it is a challenge when there are different NGOs working in the same village. Villagers get confused with different organizational set up and systems and the impacts are not as good. Hence for implementation, we prefer working as the only agency in villages. Besides these, we have partnerships with various national level institutes who bring their expertise into our rural outreach.

CSR Times – It’s mentioned about impact assessment on your website, so do you have any evaluation methodology on how you calculate and do you publish those reports?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza - We do impact assessments for the projects implemented by WOTR, but the studies are conducted by our research team in WOTR that is based in Pune as a 3rd party evaluation. Generally we have the baseline data which serves for calculating changes. Impact assessments are conducted for bio-physical (water, tree cover, agriculture production etc.) economic and social changes. As applicable we use GIS and remote sensing also. These studies provide a good feedback that helps us and for that matter any implementing agency and donor, to modify approaches and interventions towards a climate adaptive sustainable development.

CSR Times – So do you follow any system or have you developed your own system based on your requirements?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza - We develop our own systems based on what is required, particularly when these are not available. For instance for assessing the vulnerabilities to climate change, we searched around and there was no appropriate tool available. Hence we developed a tool called “Community Driven Vulnerability Evaluation – Programme Designer (Co-DriVE-PD) that takes into consideration people’s perception of the climate and other vulnerabilities and then the implementing agency can prepare a project proposal that is climate adaptive. Applying this same tool later will serve as an assessment tool. The handbook is available on our web-site and free to be downloaded.

CSR Times - We noticed lots of research papers on your website. Do you suggest that we link our readers to your website and share your reports with our readers?

Dr. Marcella Dsouza – definitely, do link your readers to WOTR’s web-site www.wotr.org We offer trainings on the various relevant topics for sustainable development. These are announced on the web-site too, which will benefit corporates. We would like that as many people benefit from the lessons learnt. The material is freely downloadable. We will shortly put up our Co-DriVE-PD software tool for doing climate related vulnerability assessments for rural communities. Including this angle will enhance the sustainability sought from the projects corporates fund and will build the resilience of the local people. This tool will serve the corporate donors so that the projects they support will have sustainable outcomes and impacts.

About Dr. Marcella D’Souza

Dr. Marcella D’Souza is a physician by profession; she chose to give up a lucrative medical career in order to dedicate her life to serving the poor in rural India. Dr. Marcella D’Souza is an alumnus of the Government Medical College, Nagpur and a Takemi Fellow of the Harvard School of Public Health. Of the almost 3 decades of working in rural areas, six were spent on the mountains of Peru, South America. Here she organized a large-scale community-led, indigenous knowledge-based health care system across large areas of the South Andes. As a programme coordinator for women’s promotion, Dr. Marcella was responsible for developing the pedagogy for empowering women through self-help group formation and federations at the village level, as well as mainstreaming women into the decision-making structures of the village.

About WOTR

WOTR has embedded Ecosystem based Watershed Development in its philosophy which reduces risk, mitigates the impact of adverse climate changes through adaptation, and Sustainable Agriculture which promotes use of indigenous seeds to increase land productivity. The Climate Change Adaptation project is being implemented in 53 villages of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Systems thinking and Complexity Approaches are introduced in conventional development outlines and strategies are being formulated to incorporate this.