Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) are used in impact evaluation in a range of fields. However, despite calls for their greater use in environmental management, their use to evaluate landscape scale interventions remains rare. Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) incentivise land users to manage land to provide environmental benefits. We present the first RCT evaluation of a PES program aiming to improve water quality. Watershared is a program which incentivises landowners to avoid deforestation and exclude cattle from riparian forests. Using this unusual landscape-scale experiment we explore the efficacy of Watershared at improving water quality, and draw lessons for future RCT evaluations of landscape-scale environmental management interventions.
One hundred and twenty-nine communities in the Bolivian Andes were randomly allocated to treatment (offered Watershared agreements) or control (not offered agreements) following baseline data collection (including Escherichia coli contamination in most communities) in 2010. We collected end-line data in 2015. Using our end-line data, we explored the extent to which variables associated with the intervention (e.g. cattle exclusion, absence of faeces) predict water quality locally. We then investigated the efficacy of the intervention at improving water quality at the landscape scale using the RCT. This analysis was done in two ways; for the subset of communities for which we have both baseline and end-line data from identical locations we used difference-in-differences (matching on baseline water quality), for all sites we compared control and treatment at end-line controlling for selected predictors of water quality.
The presence of cattle faeces in water adversely affected water quality suggesting excluding cattle has a positive impact on water quality locally. However, both the matched difference-in-differences analysis and the comparison between treatment and control communities at end-line suggested Watershared was not effective at reducing E. coli contamination at the landscape scale. Uptake of Watershared agreements was very low and the most important land from a water quality perspective (land around water intakes) was seldom enrolled.
Although excluding cattle may have a positive local impact on water quality, higher uptake and better targeting would be required to achieve a significant impact on the quality of water consumed in the communities. Although RCTs potentially have an important role to play in building the evidence base for approaches such as PES, they are far from straightforward to implement. In this case, the randomised trial was not central to concluding that Watershared had not produced a landscape scale impact. We suggest that this RCT provides valuable lessons for future use of randomised experiments to evaluate landscape-scale environmental management interventions.