Is Participatory Watershed Development Building Local Adaptive Capacity? Findings from a Case Study in Rajasthan, India

Chandni Singh  | 2017


Watershed development has emerged as a crucial intervention to strengthen natural resource-based livelihoods in semi-arid areas in India. It has evolved from an infrastructure-heavy, top-down approach, into an increasingly participatory process aimed at building rural adaptive capacity to deal with climate change and other risks such as water scarcity and natural resource degradation. However, the efficacy of watershed development initiatives in building local adaptive capacity has not matched intention, and farmers remain exposed to the unpredictable water supply. Against this backdrop of inadequate alignment between policy intention and outcomes, this paper examines whether participatory watershed development, as it is currently implemented, contributes to building farmer adaptive capacity. A case study of a watershed project in southern Rajasthan is used as an illustrative example. The findings demonstrate that watershed interventions focused on hard adaptation options such as building check dams without a matching emphasis on soft adaptation approaches such as building inclusive institutions or incentivizing sustainable resource use. In practice, community participation often reinforced existing power and gender- and caste-based hierarchies, raising questions of who benefits from participatory watershed projects and to what degree. Several non-project, macro-scale factors such as corruption and continued policy focus on water supply augmentation were found to undermine positive impacts of the watershed project. These findings suggest that without adequate empowerment, expectations that community participation will augment rural livelihoods, restore water-stressed ecosystems, and build adaptive capacity to climatic risks were found to be rhetorical. Thus, the study calls for a restructuring of watershed implementation that includes both hard and soft adaptation approaches, and allows for strategies that first empower and then engage communities in livelihood strengthening and resource stewardship.