Those who build dams, they can build fountains…

About two weeks back I paid a visit to the Itaipu Dam with a few folks. Pretty sure it’s the first dam I’ve actively set out to go see – let alone tour – but seeing as though it’s one of Paraguay’s few claims to fame AND and incredible marvel of modern (or any type of) construction, I figured it was worth a few hours of my afternoon. And it was free.

For those who aren’t engineering nerds, or who missed the Modern Marvels episode, the Itaipu (Guarani for singing rock) Dam is the largest hydroelectric complex in the world. Asterisk Asterisk Asterisk. The Three Gorges Dam in China, now recently operational, I’m pretty sure is new rightful holder of that title – although I think Itaipu still puts out the most kilowatts. Either way the scale of the operation is amazing. The appearance of though, doesn’t do it justice – and neither does anything short of an aerial photograph. The structure is so massive, that without any deep canyon walls, like Hoover, to contain it, it just fades into the distance – all 25,459 feet of it.

Itaipu Dam the day I visited

The dam sits on the Rio Parana on the border of Paraguay and Brazil. A binational organization formed by both governments operates the facility which provides 26% of the power to to Brazil and 90% of the power to Paraguay or just under a total of 30 million people – about the equivalent population of New York state.

The stats speak for themselves:

  • During construction the course of the seventh biggest river in the world was shifted, as were 50 million tons of earth and rock – Enough soil excavated to line dump trucks bumper to bumper 3 times around the earth.
  • 1.2 million drawing sheets were used in construction (that’s a plan set 50 stories tall!)
  • 12.8 million cubic meters of concrete were poured
    Some facts on this alone:
    The pace of work allowed them to pour the equivalent of constructing one of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana football stadium’s worth of concrete every 4 days
    Or a 20 story building every 55 minutes.
  • The amount of concrete used to build the Itaipu Power Plant would be enough to build 210 stadiums the size of the Estádio do Maracanã.
  • The iron and steel used would allow for the construction of 380 Eiffel Towers.
  • The volume of excavation of earth and rock in Itaipu is 8.5 times greater than that of the Channel Tunnel and the volume of concrete is 15 times greater.
  • Peak construction of 30,000 workers – eating 1.4 million meals per month. 3000 kg of rice were cooked at each meal.
  • The total length of the dam is 7235 m. The crest elevation is 225 m.
  • The maximum flow of Itaipu’s fourteen segmented spillways is 62.2 thousand cubic metres per second, into three skislope formed canals. It is equivalent to 40 times the average flow of the nearby natural Iguaçu Falls.
  • The flow of two generators (700 m3·s−1 each) is roughly equivalent to the average flow of the Iguaçu Falls (1500 m3·s−1).
  • If Brazil were to use Thermal Power Generation to produce the electric power of Itaipu, 434,000 barrels (69,000 m3) of petroleum would have to be burned every day.
  • The dam is 196 metres high, equivalent to a 65-story building.
  • Though it is the seventh largest reservoir in size in Brazil, the Itaipu’s reservoir has the best relation between electricity production and flooded area.
  • Each turbine generates around 700 MW; by comparison, all the water from the Iguaçu Falls would have the capacity to feed only two generators.
  • 94.8 BILLION kWh generated in 2008

To me, building something in Paraguay would prove difficult enough. Let alone dealing with the bureaucracies of two governments (one not particularly know for it’s transparency) and a location clearly situated in the middle of nowhere. (Cuidad del Este was nothing more then a border outpost on the river before the dam came along). That in eight years something of this magnitude could be completed is incredible.

Equally incredible as the man-made marvel that straddles it, is the little heard of Rio Parana. This river, second only to the Amazon in length on the whole continent puts out so much water that it’s dammed a second time farther on downstream. By the numbers it the 4th biggest river in the world in terms of discharge, falling behind only the Amazon, Congo and Brahmaputra rivers. But since it sits where it does, this is probably the first – and barring some major catastrophe – the last, time you’ll ever hear of it from anyone other then me.

(thanks to wikipedia for some of the above stats)


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