A black and white photo of the Waitaki dam.

Power from the River

10 Nov 2020
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.

Our audiovisual collection covers many of these hydroelectric stations.

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.

Hero image: Waitaki Dam and Hydro in New Zealand.

'Pacific Magazine 27 - Power of the South' - The Roxburgh Hydro Electric scheme construction required the damming of the Clutha River. Work began on the dam in 1955 and involved men from 26 countries working 12 hour shifts, day and night.

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.