Mammoth dam project on the Parana churns pioneering and patriotism

Here in the valley of the sprawling Parana River Basin, Brazil is constructing the world's largest hydroelectric facility. It is a mighty $12 billion project, the biggest construction ever undertaken in Brazil.

When completed in 1988, Itaipu Dam's hydroelectric potential will be 12.6 million kilowatts -- far greater than that of Grand Coulee -- and will provide energy-short Brazilian industry with a sure source of electricity for decades to come.

"We are building for the future," says Heitor Souza da Ribeiro, a hard-hat who worked before on Ilha Solteira and Jupia Dams 300 miles up the Parana River and, earlier, on Brazil's starkly modern capital, Brasilia. "Itaipu is as exciting as Brasilia, for you know you're building your country."

That sort of enthusiasm -- a heady mix of pioneering spirit, patriotism, and self-assurance -- is typical of workers here, particularly the Brazilians who make up nearly two-thirds of the 37,000-member work force.

A mystique is already developing around Itaipu. There are taller dams and even some that are longer, but there are none anywhere that can equal Itaipu in volume of concrete or hydroelectric capacity.

Looking at the colossus taking shape amid the rubble of construction, it is easy to forget that five years ago this area was largely virgin countryside. The mighty Parana, the second-largest river system in South America, with a flow five times that of the Rhine, rushed relentlessly through the red clay of southwestern Brazil toward spectacular Iguacu Falls 15 miles south.

Work on Itaipu began with a ceremonial blast of dynamite in 1978 that quickly diverted the Parana from its course so the dam builders could begin their work. Now, 3 1/2 years later, the excavation is complete -- and already 70 percent of the concrete for the dam, enough to build a city the size of Boston, has been poured.

Construction has been swift, so fast that toward the end of next year the Parana will have been completely harnessed and a 540-square-mile reservoir created. Then sometime in 1983, the first three of 18 generators will be operating.

Rising some 62 stories, taller than any building in South America, and stretching nearly five miles between the red earth of Brazil on the east and Paraguay on the west, the massive Itaipu Dam will generate half Brazil's present total generating capacity.

In a nation that has a voracious appetite for energy, Itaipu's contribution to Brazil's energy requirements is extremely important. Much of the power generated by it will go to industrial users in Brazil's southeast -- the area that fans out from Sao Paulo and reaches to Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais state , Curitiba in Parana State, Campo Grande in the Mato Grosso, and Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul State. Brazil's former capital, Rio de Janeiro, will also benefit.

Actually the project is a joint Brazilian-Paraguayan undertaking, since the Parana is the border between the two nations. The two countries are splitting the costs, much of the funding coming from international lending sources, but Brazil is obviously the key factor. Moreover, Brazil has provided most of the technical expertise for constructing the dam, and more than two-thirds of the workers on the project are Brazilian. The name Itaipu comes from a rocky island in the Parana whose name in the Guarani Indian language means "singing stone."

Each country is supposed to purchase half the power generated. But Brazil is expected to take a larger share to meet its greater needs. Interestingly, Itaipu's power will be generated in two cycles -- 60 for Brazil's United States-style supply, 50 for Paraguay's European-style system. (In alternating current, the current reverses from positive to negative and back again so many times per second.)

Brazil will have the capacity to convert, when needed, some of the 50-cycle electricity to 60 cycles. The machinery for this conversion is already in place "and worth the cost," says Joao Antonio Macias do Figuereido Rendon, a US-trained engineer working on the project.

Itaipu's construction is not only on schedule, but also on budget.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.