Recently one of our staff members took a trip to Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil to see Iguazu Falls, one of the seven modern world wonders. Seeing the expansive waterfalls can remind anyone of the sheer force that water has and how much power can be derived from that force. A coincidence or not, the next biggest attraction in Foz do Iguaçu besides the falls also relates to water, being the nearby dam along the Paraná River, Itaipu Dam. While the thought of seeing a dam for an exciting tourist experience doesn’t seem all that exciting, the dam is actually a quite impressive feat. In fact, it is one of American Society of Civil Engineers’ seven wonders of the modern world. In terms of annual generating capacity, Itaipu Dam is the largest hydroelectric facility in the world, producing nearly 92,000 Giga Watts of power in 2009. As a point of reference, compare this one dam’s energy production to the wind energy production of the entire European Union in 2009, which was 163,000 GWh. Not bad. This source of clean, renewable, and alternative energy is a huge benefit to Paraguay and Brazil’s energy consumption and production. However, this benefit is not met without its negative social and environmental impacts.
The construction of Itaipu Dam created numerous negative byproducts that are often overlooked for its immense energy production. Previous to the dam’s creation, another natural wonder besides Iguazu Falls existed in the area. Guaíra Falls were a series of enormous waterfalls along the Brazilian and Paraguayan border, with flow rates that were among the greatest in the world, that brought tourists in from all over the globe. Those falls are now submerged in the Itaipu reservois. After construction of the dam, part of the rock face of the falls was destroyed with dynamite to create smoother navigation on the newly formed reservoir. Consequently, Guaíra Falls would never be able to be fully restored at some point in the future.
Past these environmental effects are social effects as well. Between the beginning of construction to its completion, 10,000 families living along the Paraná River were displaced, losing not only their homes but also their businesses and sources of livelihood. Historically speaking, even when families are offered monetary benefits in return for vacating their homes, they nevertheless lose more than they gain.
This brings up a difficult issue for those seeking effective energy alternatives. Itaipu Dam is a highly productive source of clean, renewable, and alternative energy that cannot be paralleled by most other energy sources. For example, if Brazil were to utilize thermal power generation, in which steam is used to move turbines, to produce the same electric power of Itaipu Dam, approximately 434,000 barrels of oil would need to be burned every single day. On the other hand, 1,350 square kilometers of land that was previously the home to thousands of families and all walks of life is now under water. Is it worth the environmental and social sacrifice to use this sort of tactic to create clean and alternative energy?
Some say no. A Chilean court recently blocked plans to construct five dams in the Patagonian region, citing the project as “environmentally destructive and unnecessary.”
There is still time to effectively address this issue. However, time is dwindling. By 2040, the world’s oils reserves, may be running dry, and the global population will need to look to other sources for power. Thus, it is time now to invest in economically viable technologies that are not harmful to the environment. Referring back to our last post, it is necessary to look at the true meanings of words like “renewable,” “alternative,” and “clean”, as they do not necessarily mean that the process is environmentally friendly. The building of Itaipu Dam is a perfect example. Hydroelectric power is a fantastic alternative to the usual sources of energy (i.e. petroleum), but what should the cost be for this luxury?