Residents of Kumbharwadi village in Maharashtra, India are on the frontlines of complex water management challenges.

After cyclical monsoon rains combined with years of unsustainable land management practices like deforestation, villagers faced severe land degradation and inconsistent water supply. So in 1998, they started working with the Watershed Organization Trust (WOTR) on Watershed Development (WSD). WSD is a method of restoring watershed ecosystems to create a more consistent and sustainable water supply while improving soil health and ecosystem function, and ultimately increase agricultural income and livelihoods. It paid off — research from WRI and WOTR found that planting trees, banning livestock grazing and other strategies produced $30,000-$43,000 in benefits for each household over 15 years in increased crop and livestock production, avoided costs of water storage tanks and more.

Now that more frequent climate variability is being experienced, Kumbharwadi villagers need to adapt to sustain the gains they’ve made. WOTR initiated a climate change adaptation project in Kumbharwadi in 2012 that expanded traditional WSD interventions to incorporate more proactive measures like locale-specific crop-weather advisories, adaptive sustainable agriculture practices, water budgeting training, renewable energy technologies for cooking and heating, and disaster risk management training.

While many organizations like WOTR are ramping up their climate adaptation projects, few are actually tracking and evaluating their success, due largely to funding constraints and lack of technical capacity for monitoring and evaluation. This has some dangerous consequences – if such actions aren’t tracked, it’s possible that projects may create unintended consequences that compromise ecosystem health, agricultural production, and livelihoods.

So WRI and WOTR set out to design an adaptation tracking (or monitoring and evaluation) system for WOTR, using input from residents of Kumbharwardi, which we’ve documented in our new working paper, Tracking Adaptation Success for Community-Level Watershed Development in India. The key lessons we learned shed light on how Kumbharwadi and other WSD sites can better evaluate their progress and ensure their adaptation activities are generating effective results:

  1. Adaptation tracking with respect to WSD in India needs to be fundamentally rethought.  Implementing agencies need to move away from traditional impact or output-focused tracking to long-term tracking of indicators covering ecosystem conditions, social improvements, economic impacts, and changes in processes and behaviors by institutions and community members. For example, if an objective of WSD is to increase a community’s agricultural income, a traditional tracking system may just monitor agricultural yields or agricultural income gains. More informational and outcome-focused indicators related to adaptation success might include tracking behavioral changes, like the percentage of farmers who adopt water budgeting techniques and percentage of farmers who believe they are better able to cope with drought.
  2. WSD organizations and funders need to work together to promote consistent and long-term reporting that enables tracking of adaptation success. Implementing agencies face resource constraints, both financial and technical, in developing and maintaining monitoring and evaluation systems. Funders of WSD (such as bilateral and multilateral funds) can help by (1) cooperating with implementing agencies to understand their needs and goals related to WSD and adaptation success; (2) adjusting their reporting requirements to promote consistent data collection of key indicators over regular intervals; and (3) adjusting their reporting requirements and funding mechanisms to promote long-term reporting on ecosystem, social and climate conditions, processes, and behavioral changes. For example, WOTR creates baseline reports on targeted indicators before each project begins. However based on funder reporting requirements, the end of project reports for each project do not always track the same indicators as the baseline reports. Having consistent reporting on the same indicators over multiple periods would generate more useful data that could be used in impact and economic evaluations.
  3. Participation by community members throughout the adaptation tracking development and management process is critical for adaptation success. Ultimately, WSD success is defined by the target communities, like residents of Kumbharwadi. So their participation in establishing and operating an adaptation tracking system is critical for ensuring project activities are useful for improving residents’ welfare. It is important that community input is representative of age, gender, occupation and income levels. For example, WOTR established focus groups with targeted village members in Kumbharwadi to define long-term objectives for the watershed in the tracking system.  WOTR held separate focus groups with men and women, as women felt more comfortable speaking about issues that concerned them without men in the room. This helped ensure gender issues were appropriately addressed in the adaptation tracking system.

WRI and WOTR will continue implementing the adaptation tracking system in India. In the meantime, designing the system has revealed a key insight useful to everyone working in the adaptation space:  you can’t know if an adaptation project is effective if you’re not tracking its progress.