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From factory to field: Waste-water irrigation in China's early socialist cities

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In the 1950s, cities in China began experimenting with waste-water irrigation as a solution to environmental problems emerging from rapid urban and industrial growth. This paper explores the reasons behind the promotion of this technology and the difficulties encountered in implementing it. I argue that growing interest in waste-water irrigation can best be understood in the context of national development strategies and the political-economic conditions of the early Mao period. Building on a long tradition in China of using human waste as fertiliser, waste-water irrigation in the 1950s and early 1960s was seen as forward-looking and modern, yet still consistent with the principle of frugality promoted by the state. It was also understood to be a mode of metabolising urban wastes that would enhance links between town and country, as well as between workers and peasants - two of the 'Three Great Differences' (or antagonisms) that Chinese socialism sought to eliminate. The paper uses the concept of 'metabolism' as a frame for understanding the promotion of wastewater irrigation during its experimental period despite uncertainties regarding the ecological effects of newly established circuits of waste and water that were reconnecting parts of urban China with their surrounding rural hinterlands.
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Keywords: national development; socialism; urban metabolism; urbanisation; waste-water irrigation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2016

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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