Home >> Build It Bigger, Season 5, Episode 8: Deriner Dam, Turkey

Build It Bigger, Season 5, Episode 8: Deriner Dam, Turkey

by Danny Forster on Jan 2, 2010

Deriner Dam, Turkey
Episode 8 season 5
Why, you might ask, am I suspended above a giant waterfall between two mountaintops?

My position on this shoot is a result of my adventurous spirit, my deep curiosity, and . . . Turkey′s place in the world. Turkey is in some ways the ultimate modern, global nation: straddling Europe and Asia, with strong cultural ties to the Middle East, and an economy growing like crazy over the last decade or so. Turkey now has the 15th largest gross domestic product in the world.

With growth comes consumption (as every parent of a teenager knows). Turkey has tripled its energy consumption in the last thirty years. And the more it needs, the more it imports—70% of its power comes from imported fossil fuels.

But the Turkish government decided for the sake of its financial and energy security that it wanted to be more self-reliant. And what was the most likely source of indigenous power? Hydroelectric. Turkey, you see, is full of running water and it′s full of mountains. Mountains + running water = waterfalls. Waterfalls = potential energy. The idea was to harness this energy through a series of dams, and eventually fulfill 30% of Turkey′s energy needs with hydroelectric power alone.

That′s why I′m here, in the Coruh River Valley, in northeastern Turkey, a short distance from the Black Sea. Over the course of its run through this valley, the water falls 2,000 vertical feet. There will, eventually, be 11 dams on the course of this river, forcing every drop to make electricity 11 different times.

We went to see how work is going on the first dam, the Deriner dam. There are a bunch of different kinds of dams, but the two basic ones are gravity dams, like the Hoover Dam—you can picture it: a massive wall of concrete blocking water flow—and arch dams. Arch dams are used where the riverbed is relatively narrow, as in between two mountains, and they look like an arch that′s fallen over backward, the convex side facing the onrush of water, and the concave side . . . not facing the onrush of water.

The Deriner dam is a double-arch dam, also know as a dome dam. It curves from side to side like a regular arch dam, and from top to bottom as well. It holds back the same amount of water as the Hoover dam, but at its widest is just 200 feet thick (about a sixth as wide). The shape—the arch—transfers all that weight into the granite mountains on either side.

River going through steep mountains: it makes perfect sense from an engineer′s perspective. But how the hell do you build it? The worksite is—I measured it—exactly a zillion feet up on rushing water. What, um, do the workers even stand on? How do they even get to work?

Ziplines. OK, well, technically, cable cranes, but same concept. Workers, concrete, bulldozers—everything rides on giant cables from the edge of a mountain to the dam-in-progress. Even me.

You can imagine, given the danger, the sense of camaraderie that pervades this work crew. Now double that when you realize that because the worksite is so high up and hard to reach, they live in a temporary work camp up in the mountains. And double it again when you reflect on the fact that this construction project is a transformative one for the future of Turkey. Like America′s building of the interstate highway system, the construction of these hydroelectric dams is the project of a lifetime for the engineers, builders, and workers—for the country itself.

How could I not be there?