Itaipu Dam: The price of power

Itaipu Dam, Paraguay. Itaipu means ‘sound of a stone’ in Guaraní

The gently curved chute looks a like a ski jump for giants. But instead of holding back super-sized Eddie the Eagle types, the huge steel-enforced concrete gates at the top of the ramp keep the World’s seventh largest river at bay.

When the doors are raised, millions of gallons of H20 races down the 483 metre-long slide before hurtling over the precipice and plummeting downwards.

The tremendous force of the water pouring off the Itaipu Dam chute to the depths below

Twenty generator units installed along the dam’s 7.2 kilometre radius harness the power of this tremendous water surge, converting agua to electricity.

One of the most expensive objects ever made, in 1994 Itaipu hydroelectric dam was named a manmade wonder of the modern world by the American Society of Engineers.

Despite losing its ‘World’s biggest dam’ crown to the monster Three Gorges hydroelectric plant in China, Itaipu still produces more electricity per annum than any other hydroelectric plant in the world. It provides 19 per cent of Brazil’s and 90 per cent of Paraguay’s total annual energy needs.

The huge dam stretches into the distance

At the smart Itaipu Dam welcome centre, some 10 kilometres from Ciudad Del Este – the famed ‘supermarket of South America’ – we tag on to a free tour around the hydroelectric plant.

Our smiling guide bombards our ears with facts: “There’s enough concrete in this dam to build 210 football stadiums the size of Rio’s Maracanã…”

“…No less than 380 Eiffel Towers could be built with the iron and steel used for the construction of the plant…”

“…The volume of earth and rock extracted from here to build the dam is more than eight times greater than that removed to create the Channel Tunnel…”

View from the top, as millions of gallons of water rush out of the dam

“…If Brazil were to use thermal power generation to produce the electric power of Itaipu, 434,000 barrels of petroleum would have to be burned every day…”

Sophie and I join fellow tourists in wide-mouthed admiration at what sounds like both an engineering and environmental success story.

But, of course, everything comes at a cost and behind the one-sided PR spin lies the familiar story of native indians being displaced – 10,000 families in this case – alongside the destruction of natural habitats boasting jaguars, exotic birds, tapirs, crocodiles and deer.

To create the enormous Itaipu Reservoir, Guaíra Falls, the biggest waterfalls (by volume) in the world had to be completely submerged.

The manmade reservoir that swallowed some of the most beautiful falls in the World

The falls were reportedly just as breathtaking as their neighbours at Iguazu a few miles down the road, but any chance they may one day be witnessed again ended when the Brazilian government dynamited the now suberged cliff edge to enable a safer passage for ships.

Yet as we skirt along the top of the dam, one can’t help but marvel at the technical and engineering prowess required to conceive and build this huge power generator.

Our enthusiastic host ensures the facts keep coming.

Caged toucan at the zoo by Itaipu dam

“…The flow down the spillways is more than 60 thousand cubic metres per second – 40 times the average of Iguazu Falls…”

“… It electrifies South America’s biggest city – São Paulo…”

Later we take a stroll around Itaipu Zoo, part of a conservation project that provides shelter for animals rescued from the area destroyed when the dam was built.

In contrast to the plush décor of the visitor centre, the cages in the zoo that house a variety of rescued animals are small and rundown. The animals on show include big cats, birds of prey, turtles, toucans, leopards and crocodiles.

There is no question of the huge benefits the dam has brought, but power certainly has its price.

Behind bars: A jaguar at Itaipu zoo reveals the other side of the engineering masterpiece


About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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