Home >> Build It Bigger, Season 3, Episode 5: Peru TransAndean Bypass

Build It Bigger, Season 3, Episode 5: Peru TransAndean Bypass

by Danny Forster on Jan 2, 2009

Olmos Transandino Project, Peru
Episode 5 season 3
The Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world. It runs down the length of South America through seven countries. It′s got volcanoes. It′s got snowy peaks. It′s got copper mines. And now it has a 12-mile hole.

Well, almost 12 miles. The Olmos Project, a tunnel through the Andes in Peru, has been delayed . . . again. But you know, with crazy ambitious nation-changing projects, these things happen.

When completed, this tunnel is going to transform Peru. As it is now and has been for, um, ever, Peru has three very distinct regions. Are you picturing a long, skinny country on the west of the continent? OK, the Pacific, or western side, is called the costa. It′s all arid coast-line, hard going for its farmers. The Atlantic or eastern side is called the selva, and it is by contrast green, lush, and jungly. Between them runs the sierra, the highlands of the Andes.

But the mountains don′t just sit in between the other regions; they actually cause the drastic disparity in rainfall. Rainclouds from the east don′t make it across the Andes. And that′s the way it′s always been.

Until Pacha Mama came along. Pacha Mama means "mother earth," and that′s what they′re calling the $14-million tunnel-boring machine that′s cutting a hole through the Andes in northwest Peru. It will be the first tunnel ever through the Andes. The plan is to dam the waters above to the east, and bring the water through the tunnel to irrigate the arid coastal farmland to the west. In other words, to take water from the wet side and give it to the dry side. Which sounds like something a fair-minded mama might do.

It′s not easy, though. Drilling through mountain is full of risks and impediments . . . like rock. Well, naturally, you say. Easy for you to shrug when you have not experienced the periodic and oh-so disturbing rock bursts caused by the tunneling. As the machine bores through the rock , enormous pressures are released, which regularly (but not predictably) results in horizontal blasts of rock fragments. They sound like machine gun fire from a 1920s gangster movie.

Which is all the more unsettling given that Pacha Mama isn′t one of those wimpy shielded TBMs with a nice protective shell. Nope, the engineers thought that kind would get stuck. So the TBM on the trans-Andean project is unshielded, meaning that the machine itself and the human workers and any visiting film crews are totally exposed.

And Pacha Mama gets stuck anyway. Keep your fingers crossed for a transAndean bypass, circa 2012.