Amazing Engineering – Itaipu Dam

Amazing Engineering is an introduction to the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, a list of modern engineering marvels compiled by the American Society of Engineers (ASCE):

In the first installment, we learned a little bit about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. In part two, we traveled out of the United States to northwestern Europe to learn about the Netherlands North Sea Protection Works. This time, we head to South America to learn about one of the most powerful dams in the world.

Located on the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay, the Itaipu Dam (officially known as Itaipu Binacional) is one of the largest hydroelectric facilities–in terms of annual energy generation–in the world. Serious political negotiations, residential displacement, wildlife rescue missions, and construction undertakings on a massive scale write the story of how the Itaipu Dam became the Wonder that it is today.
Itaipu 35556.jpg

In the 1960s, Brazil’s population was rapidly growing. With the estimated population growth, the government realized there would soon be an energy crisis in the country if drastic measures were not taken. The most cost effective solution to this problem was to hardness the energy of the abundant water resources already available in the country.

Engineers traveled all over Brazil to study the structural stability of the potential dam sites. The perfect location for this project was a location on the Paraná River, the seventh largest river in the world, which flows down the border between Brazil and Paraguay. However, vague land ownership documents made determining the exact border between the two countries impossible.

Brazil and Paraguay could not easily come to an agreement over the dam. In the 1800s, the two countries clashed in a war in which Paraguay lost half its population and territory. Top officials of the two countries entered in to intense negotiations resulting in the “Iguazu Minutes,” which in turn led to the Itaipu Treaty, allowing both countries to use the Paraná River for hydroelectric purposes.

The agreements met between Brazil and Paraguay unsettled the government of Argentina, which rests to the south. The Argentineans feared the possibility of restricted access to resources provided by the Paraná River. A Three-Party Agreement was eventually reached which eased diplomatic tension.

One reason this region was chosen for the Itaipu Dam project was because of the low population of the area. However, there were still many people who would be displaced when the dam flooded the area. The Brazilian government sent employees to each home of the estimated 10,000 families in the area to provide estimates for monetary compensation of displacement.

Paraguay had its own share of concerns. While in Brazil the floodplain consisted mostly of agricultural area, the Paraguayan land that would flood was covered mostly in dense rainforest–home to many species of animals. A small group, consisting mostly of volunteers, scoured the rainforest documenting every species they came across. They then organized a massive undertaking of relocation as many of the animals as possible before the completion of the dam project. Even while waters flooded the area, group members traveled by boat to catch and transport as many of the stranded animals as possible.


Through all of this, the construction workers faced their own trials. In order to allow the riverbed to dry for proper construction of the dam, the Paraná River was rerouted. The detour was 2 km long, 150 meters wide, and 90 meters deep. At the time, it was the most massive river rerouting on record. Workers moved more than 50 million tons of earth and rock!

Existing bridges and roads were not prepared to carry abundant weight of some of the constructions vehicles. Alternate routes were necessary to transport important construction materials. At one point, a turbine part took 26 days on the road from the factory to its destination!

Like many engineering projects, unexpected delays and other events happen. To learn more about the construction phase of the Itaipu Dam project, check out the link at the bottom of this post.

After more than 50 thousand hours of work, the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant was complete. Today, it supplies 28 percent of all the electric energy in Brazil’s south, southeast, and central-west regions, and 72 percent of Paraguay’s total energy consumption. A production record was reached in the year 2000, when the Itaipu generated 93.4 billion kilowatts/hour. According to Itaipu Binacional, “when it celebrated 20 years in operation, the plant had already generated enough electricity to supply the world for 36 days.”

To learn more about the Itaipu Dam project, check out the credited links below (external sites):

Itaipu Dam – Engineering Channel – YouTube

Itaipu Binacional – Homepage

University of Memphis – Civil Engineering

Itaipu Dam – Wikipedia


(“Itaipu 35556“. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 br via Wikimedia Commons.)

(“ItaipuAerea2AAL” by Angelo LeitholdOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

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