The biggest dam in the world by sheer amount of material used in the dam itself is the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan, completed in 1976. But if we’re counting how much water the dam holds back, then the biggest dam in the world would be the Aswan Dam in Egypt. The tallest dam in the world is the Nurek Damn. The biggest dam in the USA is the Fort Peck Dam. The USA has four of the ten largest dams in the world. Note, this is not a list of dams by power generation ability, but the size and mass of the dam itself!
Here’s a list of the biggest dams in the world by amount of material used in the dam structure itself, followed by a list of dams by size of the reservoir, and finally a list of the tallest dams in the world.
10. Nurek Dam (Tajikistan)
The Nurek Dam is the tenth largest dam in the world if based on just the volume of the dam itself. However, the Nurek dam is the tallest dam in the world at 984 feet tall (300 meters). Nurek also creates the tenth largest reservoir in the world.
The Soviet Union built the Nurek dam over the 60s, 70s, and 80s, during the height of Soviet power. It has nine hydroelectric generators pumping out 3,015 Megawatts of power. Amazingly, that means this hydroelectric dam is responsible for almost all of Tajikistan’s electricity needs.
According to locals and Tripadvisor one should not approach the military barrier near the dam, but instead ask officers near the trees between the car park and river for a ‘ticket’ to tour the dam.
9. San Luis Dam (USA)
The San Luis Dam is shorter than the Nurek Dam at 305 feet high. It is responsible for creating the San Luis reservoir, a popular fishing spot in central California. The dam also provides electricity for Northern California, its eight hydroelectric plants pumping out 424 Megawatts.
The San Luis dam primarily works to manage water for the California State Water Project, one of the largest state water and power utilities in the world. The SWP moves water from North California via aqueducts and spreads water throughout Southern California where there is less water. San Luis helps manage moving that water around the 700 plus mile length of this system of rivers, aqueducts, dams and hydroelectric plants.
8. Oroville Dam (USA)
The Oroville Dam is another California State Water Project dam located near the city of Oroville in north central California. The Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the United States of America and was in the news in February, 2017 due to a failure of its spillway (but not the dam itself) that created downstream flood warnings and dramatic video footage of water blasting away through restraints.
This is not the first time disaster has threatened the Oroville Dam. During the construction of the dam in 1964 when too much rain caused water to almost top the incomplete dam. The dam was able to help manage the flow of water, making the 1964 flood, one of the worst North California floods, 40% less than it could have been.
7. Mangla Dam (Pakistan)
Costing almost $1.5 billion with a surface area of almost 97 square miles, capable of pumping out 1,500 Megawatts of energy, the Mangla Dam is one of the biggest dams and hydroelectric plants in the world. Located in Kashmir, Pakistan, it was built to help Pakistan control monsoon flooding from the Indus, allowing Pakistan to better manage farming and access to water.
But in addition to being seventh on the list of largest dams, Mangla is also 482 feet tall, making it the ninth tallest dam in the world.
6. Gardiner Dam (Canada)
The Gardiner Dam is one of the largest embankment dams in the entire world (which means it doesn’t use concrete or cemented material for the bulk of its material, but earth or rock to create the bulk of the dam itself). It crosses the South Saskatchewan River and, when finished in 1967, created Lake Diefenbaker. Lake Diefenbaker is the largest body of water in southern Sasketchewan, so the Gardiner Dam has a big impact on the area.
The dam has three power generating turbines, making 186 megawatts of power for the Saskatchewan area.
5. Oahe Dam (USA)
Perched on the Missouri River in South Dakota the Oahe Dam creates one of the largest reservoirs in all of the USA. It was started in the 1940s, and then finished in the 1962. The actual dam is 245 feet high and creates 786 megawatts of power for North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Minnesota via seven turbines.
Oahe Dam is also notable for having the sixth largest reservoir in the world.
4. Houtribdijk Dam (Netherlands)
This dam is fairly fascinating. For one, it’s technically a dike built in the Netherlands for the purpose of holding back water and protecting land in the Netherlands from the waters. The famously low-lying areas of this area of Europe use dikes to reclaim land that would otherwise be under water.
The Houtribdijk is one of the longer dikes in the Netherlands at 18.6 miles long (30 kilometers) and it connects two cities together, serving as a bridge in some ways.
More interesting is that the area to the west of the Houtribdijk was to become drained to create a new ‘polder’ that would allow for reclaimed land and people to live there. Due to environmental concerns, this new land wasn’t created.
Houtribdijk does not create any power, as it serves as a dike and a road.
3. Atatürk Dam (Turkey)
This dam is so important to Turkey that they featured it on the one-million-lira banknote for ten years starting back in 1995 and then again for four years in 2005. It pumps out 2,400 megawatts of electricity for Turkey’s southeastern area and is one of five dams along the Euphrates river. It’s also the seventh tallest dam in the world, and creates the fourth largest reservoir. It’s on all three lists of ways to call something a big dam.
In addition to providing electricity the dam is used to control irrigation throughout the region, as the Euphrates river is prone to uneven water flows. Almost 2,000 square miles of land in upper Mesopotamia depend on reliable water created by this dam, the water moving around via the world’s largest underground tunnel system. This system of water management is responsible for boosting Turkey’s economy of cotton production.
The dam is often a political sore point between Syria and Iraq, which the Euphrates runs through after leaving Turkey.
2. Fort Peck Dam (USA)
Fort Peck Dam is 250 feet tall and creates a reservoir so large it has a shoreline longer than California’s own shoreline. It’s built primarily to create hydro-electric power, rocking out 185 megawatts via five massive generators. The Dam is located in Montana, and it is built across the Missouri River. It creates the eighth largest dam reservoir in the world.
The Dam was created via a system of ‘hydraulic fill,’ which is by pumping material from pits nearby into the flowing water of the river. That water then took the dirt and rock along, where it slowly deposited itself and built up a dam. Unfortunately during that process a section of the dam under stress from all the water behind it slumped and killed eight workers.
1. Tarbela Dam (Pakistan)
The actual biggest dam in the world is the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan. It is also the 10th tallest dam in the world, earning it a spot on two of our lists here. It is an earth fill dam, rather than a concrete dam. There’s more cubic earth in this dam than earth or concrete or anything else in any other dam. The Tarbela Dam creates 3,478 megawatts of electricity. That puts almost in the top 20 hydroelectric plants in the world, and Tarbela is getting an upgrade soon that will give it 6,298 megawatts of power generation, almost doubling the electricity coming out of it. That would almost put it at #10 for amount of power generated.
Tarbela has a limited lifespan for water generation, though. The water that powers the hydro-electric plant comes from the glaciers of the Himalayas has a lot of silt in it. Estimates are that the dam will only be useful until 2060 as the reservoir slowly fills up.
Until then, though, it holds the cup for largest dam in the world.
What about other famous dams?
Many people assume the Three Gorges Dam is the largest in the world. It is one of the largest, but not in terms of raw material compared to the ones above. In terms of raw volume of the structure, it ranks 21st in the world. The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydro-electric plant in the world by a large margin, though. It produces a staggering 22,500 megawatts of electricity and was a mega-engineering project of staggering proportions.
Three Gorges Dam is the 6th tallest dam in the world and it creates the 5th largest reservoir. So it’s no doubt a dam with a lot of impact on public consciousness. Since it’s one of the tallest, creates the most electricity, and creates one of the largest reservoirs it’s no surprise it’s one of the more iconic and well-known dams around. And the design and concrete structure is imposing, to the point that many assume it is actually the biggest in the world.
The Aswan Dam is also another common dam that people assume to see in this list. It is close, but ultimately the dams above used far more material to create the dam structure. The Aswan is the 11th tallest dam in the world, however. Where the Aswan Dam wins number one in the world is reservoir size. The Aswan creates a reservoir that is the largest of all the dams, putting it at number one on our list of biggest dam reservoirs in the world, just a little bit further down.
The Tallest Dams in the World
One way dams can amaze us is by their stunning height, creating artificial waterfalls that show humanity’s ability to harness rivers that we all once lived at the mercy of.
The tallest dam in the world is the Nurek Dam. Here’s the list of dams by how tall they are:
- Nurek Dam (Tajikistan): 984 feet tall
- Oroville Dam (USA): 754 feet tall
- Kölnbrein Dam (Austria): 656 feet tall
- San Roque Dam (Philippines): 656 feet tall
- W.A.C. Bennet Dam (Canada): 610 feet tall
- Three Gorges Dam (China): 593 feet tall
- Atatürk Dam (Turkey): 544 feet tall
- Guri Dam (Venezuela): 531 feet tall
- Mangla Dam (Pakistan): 482 feet tall
- Tarbela Dam (Pakistan): 469 feet tall
The Biggest Dam Reservoirs in the World
Another common way to list the biggest dam in the world is by how much water they hold back. By that measure the Aswan Dam is the biggest in the world. Here are the ten biggest dams by the size of their reservoirs:
- Aswan Dam (Egypt)
- Guri Dam (Venezuela)
- Samara Dam (Russia)
- Atatürk Dam (Turkey)
- Three Gorges Dam (China)
- Oahe Dam (USA)
- Garrison Dam (USA)
- Fort Peck Dam (USA)
- Tarbela Dam (Pakistan)
- Nurek Dam (Tajikistan)