Water Systems Design: Professional Course Setup and First Findings for Valuing Water from Ourinhos/SP-Brazil

Carola Hein, Lea Kayrouz, Matteo d’Agostino, Carlien Donkor

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Water Systems Design course

Understanding that water systems are intricate networks involving space, society, and culture is essential to targeting water challenges in a global context of growing water insecurity. Professionals and academics need to collaborate with citizens, institutions, and civic organizations to explore and leverage knowledge and expertise on water heritage, urban planning, economy, sustainability, and culture to develop comprehensive approaches to water management. New forms of capacity development can help to test and promote methodologies that inspire rethinking practices in the field. The professional course Water Systems Design: Learning from the Past for Resilient Water Futures, developed by a group of scholars from the UNESCO Chair Water, Ports and Historic Cities from the LDE university consortium, focuses on the intersections between architecture, urban design, and cultural practices. It gathers professionals from multiple backgrounds and provides tools and frameworks to explore today’s wicked water challenges.

Strategic Methodologies for Learning 
Many tools exist to investigate the multiple ways water connects with spaces, ecosystems, and people’s identities. Yet, these tools are not adequately utilized or connected with questions of space, society, and culture. The course Water Systems Design proposes a transdisciplinary methodology, the “Value-based Approach”, to enable long-term, multi-dimensional, multi-stakeholder thinking, offering a pathway for designing sustainable water systems that relate to long-term development and an understanding of past, present and future water challenges. The methodology unfolds in interrelated stages of analysis and builds on them through design thinking. The course starts with a set of assignments that help learners explore issues of time and values, place and context as well as ecosystems in relation to the case study of their choice. The course then helps learners develop a vision and mission to tackle the water challenges they have identified while creating positive externalities for the territory and the actors connected to the water system. An exercise that activates the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework helps the learners identify how their project can trigger ripple effects across different sectors of society. Throughout the process, the learners develop a “Value Case” to promote comprehensive understandings of water (eco)systems and foster strategic planning based on stakeholder engagement and long-term visions.

A Value Case in the Making: The Rivers of Ourinhos 
One of the course’s participants, Rodrigo Manzione, chose to focus on the city of Ourinhos, located at the intersection of the Pardo, Turvo, and Paranapanema Rivers in Brazil. Rodrigo’s systemic analysis of the city in its broader spatial and temporal context underscores the intertwined nature of urban development, water resources, and societal values as a foundation for sustainable solutions. He created a value case aimed at addressing issues of insufficiency and the mismanagement of water resources in Ourinhos. Despite the potential for tourism and economic growth in the region, the city of Ourinhos experiences challenges such as insufficient water systems and sanitation. By placing water towers in the center of the project and emphasizing its role in a local ecosystem located next to key rivers, Rodrigo identified overlapping and sometimes competing interests and values in fields such as water supply, agriculture, tourism, and hydropower. The ecosystemic analysis that is part of the course helped him assess the actors and agents involved. As a result, Rodrigo advocated for stronger connections between tourism, local communities, and water management, as well as expanded collaboration among diverse stakeholders like the watershed committee and universities like UNESP. To address how the absence of riparian vegetation and intensive agriculture threatens river sustainability, Rodrigo suggested multifaceted solutions involving both the public and private sectors. The envisioned transformation of the Ourinhos Fire Department water tower into a tourist route serves as a model for blending science, art, and technology, demonstrating the broader applicability of our approach. Rodrigo specifically proposed to transform the Ourinhos Fire Department Water Tower into an Instagrammable spot, through an app-driven art project, involving local schools, universities, and artists. This initiative aims to enhance public awareness and engagement, potentially serving as a model for other regions. The overarching vision extends beyond a local initiative, becoming a model for sustainable development that emphasizes the interconnectedness of societal values, environmental health, the preservation of water heritage, and the broader aspirations encapsulated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Rodrigo’s project is just one example of how a multifaceted approach to a water challenge using a value case approach can lead to a more complex understanding, and ultimately design potential solutions. For him, the course had great benefits, he writes: 

“As a former engineer, I have had to rethink my way of seeing things a few times during my academic career. I have had to do so because I chose to work with the theme of water. If previously, water could be seen only as a resource, over time, environmental and social issues started overlapping with economic ones too. As each person has a natural understanding of and relationship with water, reaching different audiences as an educator becomes even more challenging. I have always believed that water heritage would be an excellent starting point, and when I noticed the Water Systems Design course, I was immediately interested in learning about the approaches used and acquiring additional knowledge for the continuation of my career.

My previous experience, studying and living in the Netherlands, made me sure that I would want to be in contact not only with trained professionals, but also with people highly involved with the topic. The course was excellent with dynamic teachers, dedicated tutors, interested classmates, high quality materials, very interesting case studies, interviews, podcasts, and a wide variety of materials that made the course, even though it was distance learning, welcoming and healthy. The workload and study during the course kept us active and connected to the activities, which also contributed to the success of the experience. TU Delft is a leader in teaching and research in water resources, and having completed a course taught by this institution is a privilege. Personally, I liked the course so much that I signed up for another course in the Water, Ports, Historic Cities and Landscapes program. I hope to see you there!”

- Rodrigo Manzione

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Water Systems Design Course