Hydroelectric power has a long history in Aotearoa New Zealand, with the first projects commissioned in the early 20th century. There are now dozens of generators across the country.
Construction of the Roxburgh Hydro scheme is well-documented. In 1956, it was the largest hydroelectricity scheme in Southern Hemisphere, and Pacific Magazine 27 notes that many predicted the Clutha River would defy attempts to tame it. Workers from 26 nations were involved in the construction and this recording provides a good overview of the enormous amount of work involved.
Hydraulic Model Tests Roxburgh Power Project has an extensive and charming sequence showing ‘how to build a dam’, particularly showing the process of constructing a cofferdam – a temporary dam that allows the final, complete one to be built.
While electricity is crucial to the country, there has been strong opposition to some hydroelectric projects. This series of clips from the sound archives on RNZ’s Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan tracks the mixture of construction and protest around the Manapouri Power Project. It features John Hanlon’s track “Damn the Dam” whose sobering lyrics include ‘to give power to the people all this beauty has to die’.
The long-running Spectrum radio documentary series spoke with Cromwell residents in 1975 about the Clutha Valley hydro development. This project resulted in the whole township being moved to higher ground.