Near the natural wonder of the Iguazu Falls is the manmade wonder of the Itaipu Dam. It is the world's largest hydroelectric dam and is considered a miraculous modern engineering feat.
The name of the dam was borrowed from a nearby island where the dam was constructed. It literally translates to singing stones in Guaraní, a poetic way perhaps to describe the sounds of the rushing water through the concrete and steel structure.
The process began with several diplomatic talks between the countries of Brazil and Paraguay. The river divides the two countries, both of which were suffering from droughts at the time of the initial talks. The original goal was to better utilize water for irrigation of crops. Argentina later participated in some of the governmental planning and agreements. While the dam is not located on Argentinean territory the regulation of the waters does directly have an effect on the country. If the waters were to be completely opened it could potentially flood Argentina until the capital of Buenos Aires.
The dam was constructed over a long period of time starting in 1975. The river of course was rerouted first in order to create a dry place for the dam to be built. The generators were built generally at a rate of two or three a year. The first one was open in 1983.
Today the dam provides the electric energy for over 75% of Paraguay's needs and meets about 25% of Brazil's electricity demands, an amazing feat for both countries. Nine of the generators work at producing energy at 50Hz for Paraguay and another 9 produce electricity at 60Hz for Brazil.
The remaining two generators are not used, and can undergo any repairs that maybe necessary. The agreement between the three countries states that the maximum output at any one time may be 18 generators, thus the 20 generators allow the dam to operate at maximum capacity at all times with 2 generators in reserve.
The amount of water running through the dam is amazing. If you compare it to the nearby Iguazú falls, the waterfalls only have enough power for 2 of the 18 generators.
The dam generates more energy than 10 nuclear power plants.
The lake that was subsequently created holds 29 billion tons of water.
Over 10,000 locals were displaced for the construction of the dam. However some 40,000 people helped to work on the project, providing jobs for both locals and foreigners.
Environmental concerns are also an issue although are overlooked by many, including the tour guides at the sight. The energy provided is free of emissions (unlike coal power plants) and there are no unwanted byproducts such as with nuclear energy.
You'll be happy to know that the dam offers free tours, but the tours fill up quickly.
It is best to reserve your ticket before going, either at your hotel or one of the local tourism companies. The tour includes a video that explains the construction of the dam as well as a walk around the facility where you can see the huge spillway and the high-pressure water rushing out. You also get to go inside and see the inner workings of the complex machinery, although really you just peer through a large window and attempt to understand all the figures that the tour guide continually throws out at you.
Be sure to ask to see the video in English, often times it means that you get a viewing all to yourself or with only a few other random gringos.
Like all tours everywhere in the world this one ends in the gift shop, giving you the opportunity to purchase postcards and other random memorabilia.
The Itaipu dam is closed on Sundays, and technically closes for lunch everyday, but you can still walk around much of the facility during the early afternoon, and staff are generally happy to help you with any information they can.
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