Project Management: Itaipu Dam

Itaipu is a hydroeletric power plant located in the border Brazil-Paraguay. Its feasibility studies were carried out from 1970 to 1973, and the construction itself started at the beginning of 1975. The first generation unit started to run in 1984.

The capacity of the plant is 14GW, which made it the biggest hydroelectric power plant until the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, in China, completed in 2008. During 2011, Itaipu generated 92,24 TWh, providing 17% of the total energy consumed in Brazil and 73% of the Paraguayan consumption.


The region where Itaipu is settled was a reason of land dispute between Brazil and Paraguay since the colonial period. In the 60’s the great hydroelectric potential of the Paraná River to produce electricity was proved and the dispute intensified. The military dictatorships governments of the countries at that moment came up with a solution that would solve the land dispute and provide energy for the increasing consumption in both countries, represented by the construction of the power plant, through the Itaipu Treaty. Afterwards, Brazil and Paraguay also signed an agreement with Argentina, since the Paraná River is one of the rivers that form the Río de La Plata, meaning that a bad water management in the dam flow could result in floods in Argentina.

Nowadays, the energy produced is shared by Brazil and Paraguay, but because of the differences regarding demand, Paraguay sells a big part of its energy rights to Brazil. The treaty between both countries expires in 2023 and since 2008 Paraguay has been claiming for a renegotiation in the conditions of Brazilian energy purchases, creating a little tension between the governments.


100.000 workers participated in the construction of the facilities. In the peak times, about 40.000 workers were leaving in 9.000 houses at the margin of Paraná River. At that moment, the closest city was Foz do Iguaçu, which had a population of 20.000 people. A huge infrastructure had to be built in order to support the intense migration toward the region.

At the construction site, the first task is to alter the course of the Paraná River by removing 55 million cubic meters of soil and rock in order to excavate a 2 km detour. Later on, in 1978, 58 tons of dynamite exploded the two cofferdams that protected the construction of the new course. The 2 km detour created was 150 meters wide and 90 meters deep.

Almost all the work was hired from Brazilians suppliers. Many companies became huge and more representative in the Brazilian economy because of this project, and the project got over the economic crisis during the 70’s. In 1978, the site received 7,207 cubic meters of concrete, which is a record in South America.  The transportation in the site demanded more than 20.000 trucks and 6.648 railways cars. Between 1978 and 1981, about 5 thousand people were hired monthly, due to the peak of the construction and the high employees’ turn over.

The dam was constructed about 1982. Before fulfilling the reservoir created with the river’s water, a huge replacement of local populations had to be done, in parallel with programs to protect local animals and plants. The first unit started to run in 1984.

The estimated cost for the plant was about US$ 10 billion and the real final cost was of about US$ 14 billion, due to all the challenges faced and the impact of the economic crisis on the project. For having an idea of the project’s magnitude, the total amount of steel and iron used are enough to build 380 Eiffel Towers. As negative effects, we can mention the displacement of 10.000 families and the death of 149 workers during the construction, besides many other accidents and diseases.


From a very controversial project, Itaipu became a very important source of energy to support Brazilian economic growth. However, at the time it was built, there were fewer concerns about social and environmental impact, so the construction was not conducted in a very good way obviously taking into account the less developed technology and standards available by the same time.

The cost was huge, but in the long run it would cost much more to generate energy from non renewable sources. Comparing with other renewable sources, the cost is lower than the alternatives available for Brazil. The conclusion is that the power plant keeps playing a very important role on Brazilians development, but there are many lessons to be learned from its construction. Furthermore, the success of the plant does not mean that the country has to adopt the same technology in other regions, since the technology and knowledge about our limits on impacting the environment and the society evolved.




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