Wonder of the Modern World: Itaipu Dam

8 May

“Don’t look down” the man next to me said just before I lent over the ledge and looked down. It resembled a giant 483 metre waterslide with H2O in abundance lining up to take the ride. The gigantic reinforced concrete gates, above which we stood, were holding back the World’s seventh largest river and when the doors slid open, millions of gallons of water hurtled down the curved ramp at 60 thousand cubic metres per second with a deafening roar.

Located on the Paraná River on the border between Paraguay and Brazil, the Itaipu Dam is one of the biggest dams on the Planet.  This network of dams stretches for 4.8 miles and rises 196 metres into the air, about the same height as a 65 story building.  At eighteen times the size of the Hoover dam and ten times as heavy, Itaipu is the heavyweight of the Dam world.  Due to its sheer size and extraordinary construction, the Itaipu Dam was named one of the modern Wonders of the World in 1994 by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Our time in South America had been spent exploring national parks, visiting historical sites, lounging on beaches and delving into indigenous markets but a visit to Itaipu would be a very different experience. We’d spent two days exploring the nearby and incredible Iguazu Falls so we took the opportunity to get a close-up view of this engineering masterpiece.

Itaipu can be visited from the Paraguayan or Brazilian side and can be easily accessed independently or as part of an organised tour. As we wanted to spend some time in Paraguay, we decided to hop across the border to the modern Itaipu Dam Welcome Centre situated just 10 kilometres from Ciudad Del Este.

At numerous times during the day the hydroelectric plant offers free tours of the site on buses. Visitors are shown a documentary about the plant prior to departure and the tour then takes around 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Our first view of the dam didn’t disappoint. It was truly a wonder of modern architecture and simply mindboggling to imagine the amount of technological skill and engineering expertise required to build such a vast power station.

Our guide explained that after years of negotiations, a deal was struck in the 1960’s between Paraguay and Brazil to build the damn. Construction began in 1971 and took 40,000 workers seven years to complete.

The dam is actually made up of four dams: a concrete wing dam, a main concrete dam, a rock-fill dam, and an earth-fill dam. It took 12.3 million cubic meters of concrete to build it – that’s enough to build a two lane motorway stretching 4,000 miles or 200 Wembley football stadiums! To ensure the concrete set correctly, they had to use large refrigeration units equivalent to 50,000 deep freezers.  There was enough steel and iron used during construction to build 380 copies of the Eiffel Tower.

As we got closer the scale of the plant came into focus. We craned our necks and were dwarfed by 28 giant turbines in a half mile long crescent.  Each of these turbines, used to convert the power of water into electricity, is 53 feet across.

Itaipu still produces more electricity per annum than any other hydroelectric plant in the world. It provides 25 per cent of Brazil’s and 90 per cent of Paraguay’s total annual energy needs.

Our guide enthused about the virtues of the dam. He and hundreds of colleagues now had stable, well paying jobs and the region had been given a sustainable economic boost. Itaipu provides millions of people across Brazil and Paraguay with power for their homes, places of work and cities, whilst retaining the title of the largest clean, renewable energy generator on the planet.

However, behind the positive marketing and impressive statistics is a darker side.  The face of progress came at a grave cost to the natural environment and indigenous people of the area.  To begin construction it was necessary to divert the flow of the Parana River, one of the World’s largest rivers, by shifting 50 million tons of earth and rock. A vast swathe of Atlantic rainforest was chopped down, destroying natural habitat for jaguars, leopards, crocodiles, birds of prey, toucans and turtles. In addition, 10,000 families were forcibly relocated, with little or no say in the matter.

To create the enormous reservoir, the Brazilian government dynamited and submerged Guaíra Falls, destroying forever the biggest waterfall (by volume) in the world at that time.  This incredible natural feature was once considered by many to be the most spectacular falls in the world and equally as breath-taking as its neighbour Iguazu, one of Brazil’s biggest tourist attractions.

Named after a small island located near the construction site of the dam, Itaipu translates as ‘the sounding stone’ and our visit certainly left us feeling thoughtful. We were impressed with Itaipu’s sheer scale and the advancement of technology. There was no question of the huge benefits the dam has brought to the area however progress has certainly come at a price.


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