On Brazilian Infrastructure, Or, “Exploding Manholes Seem to Suggest a Bigger Problem”

Rio de Janeiro is going through all sorts of reconstruction, renovation, and re-imaging as it prepares to host the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. While a lot of these transformations are for foreign guests, there is no question that the city has very real infrastructural improvements for its own citizens (and visitors) that desperately need to be addressed. To wit:

Since 2010, manhole explosions here have shattered windows, flattened cars and injured passers-by. An explosion in 2012 killed a worker at Rio’s port. While the rate of explosions has slowed, the city was rattled yet again in December after a manhole erupted behind the Copacabana Palace, the neo-Classical-style gem that is arguably Rio’s most luxurious hotel. A motorcyclist narrowly escaped the recent blast, filming with his cellphone his motorcycle going up in flames.

Such explosions are not unique to Rio. Indeed, engineering experts say few large cities are immune. Gas from any number of sources can collect underground. Electrical cables, often running in the same pipes, can fray with age, producing a spark that can set off an explosion, shooting up fire and flinging hundred-pound cast-iron manhole covers high into the air.

But Moacyr Duarte, a senior researcher on the city’s infrastructure at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said dozens of explosions here, which often occurred in densely-populated areas, had “clearly gone beyond what it is statistically reasonable,” before recently declining.

The rapid growth in Brazil’s population and economy certainly have their perks. However, their impacts on cities is not universally positive; in a country that already witnessed its rural-urban population shift from 70%-30% in the 1930s to 30%-70% by the 1980s, over 85% of Brazilians now live in the country’s booming cities. This only adds to the stresses on the infrastructure that maintains cities. Additionally, while Brazil’s economy has been enjoying a relative boom in the last decade or so, the economic turmoil of the late-1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s led to states and cities failing to provide the adequate resources needed to make certain that Brazil’s urban infrastructure was maintaining at least some pace with the burgeoning urban populations. The massive wave of privatizations of industries like electric companies also took the responsibility for upkeep away from governments that could use state revenue, and put the responsibility into the hands of private companies focused more on profit than on development. It’s not just manholes that are causing problems; many urban streets are decaying, and one only need to fly into Rio de Janeiro’s airport to get a sense of how little it has changed since the 1970s; indeed, it’s hard to find a more untouched vision of 1970s authoritarian modernism in architecture than Rio’s airport (and that’s being charitable). Yet these manholes provide a powerful, if violent, example of the value of maintaining infrastructure, and a meaningful reminder that recent economic successes cannot provide instant remedies for decades-old problems.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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