WATER IN CHINA: WELLS, DEPLETED AQUIFERS AND LIMITED CONSERVATION

WATER IN CHINA

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Pumped water

China supports 20 percent of the world population with only 7 percent of its fresh water. China has roughly the same amount of water as the United States but five time the population. China also has about the same amount of water as Canada but around 40 more times people. The shortages are particularly acute in northern China where half the population lives with only 15 percent of China’s water. Generally, southern China is relatively wet and northern China is largely dry. .

More than 50 percent of China’s rivers have disappeared altogether, The UN considers China one of the 13 countries most affected by water scarcity. The water available for each person in China is one forth the global average and this portion is expected to shrink to one fifth as the population grows. It is estimated that China will need to increase its water supply fivefold to meet its industrial needs by 2035.

The shortages are particularly acute in northern China where half the population lives with only 15 percent of China’s water. The North China Plain is home to about 42 percent of China’s population but only has 8 percent of the country’s water resources. If the region where a country its water availability would rank below Morocco. An blunt editorial The South China Morning Post said that China, had mismanaged its vast system of 87,000 reservoirs, 43 percent of which it said were in poor condition.

There is an old Chinese saying that when noble guests visit the streets must be sprinkled with water. The amount of water available for each person in China is about one quarter of the world average and is declining. The problem is particularly acute in years when there are severe droughts. At least 300 cities are experiencing water shortages.The conservation, reclamation, and redistribution of water are important national goals. Water use per person (personal, agricultural and industrial) per year is the 2000s in China was 527, 450 liters (116,000 gallons), compared to 2.2-2,580 liters (484,500 gallons) in the United States. About half of China’s water is used for irrigation. This figure may rise to 70 percent by the next century.

Total renewable water resources: 2,840,220,000,000 cubic meters (2017 est.); Major aquifers North China Aquifer System (Huang Huai Hai Plain), Song-Liao Plain, Tarim Basin, [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

The Tibetan-Qinghai plateau has been called the world's largest water tank and the origin of some of Asia's most extensive river systems including the Yangtze, Indus, Irrawaddy Brahmaputra and Mekong.

Water pipelines: 797,000 kilometers (2018). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Water Use in China

Agriculture accounts for between 65 and 70 percent of China's water use and vast amounts are wasted by inefficient irrigation. According to AFP: “This is especially true in northern regions that, despite being some of the most arid in the country, are the production focus for water-hungry crops like corn and wheat. "They even grow corn in Inner Mongolia, which is incredibly dry," said Li Lifeng, director of the WWF International Freshwater Programme. "I recently talked to a farmer there who had been growing corn for just three years," Li said in Daegu. "His well started off three meters (10 feet) deep, but now it already goes down 50 meters." [Source: Giles Hewitt, AFP, April 17, 2015]

“Efforts to change the crop mix have included a recent campaign to promote the harvesting of potatoes, which require far less water. Given the traditional taste preference for rice and wheat, the state broadcaster CCTV has tried to prod things along by publishing recipes on its Weibo account, including one for Kung Pao potato.

“Northern China's thirst for water — the coal industry is centred there as well — extends to its rapidly growing and increasingly affluent urban populations. Years of declining rainfall in southern China means it now regularly sees droughts of its own.

Total water withdrawal: municipal: 79.4 billion cubic meters (2017 est.); industrial: 133.5 billion cubic meters (2017 est.); agricultural: 385.2 billion cubic meters (2017 est.); [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Drinking Water in China

Safe drinking water used to be unavailable to much of the population (as much as one-third, according to some estimates) but that situation has improved. Drinking water source
improved: urban: 97.3 percent of population
rural: 91.5 percent of population
total: 95.1 percent of population
unimproved: urban: 2.7 percent of population
rural: 8.5 percent of population
total: 4.9 percent of population (2020 est.)
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Drinking water
Proportion of population using piped water: 94 percent.
Proportion of population using non-piped improved water sources: 1 percent.
Proportion of population using unimproved drinking water services:5 percent.
Proportion of population using surface water:0 percent.
[Source: UNICEF DATA data.unicef.org]
Percent of the population that has access to safe drinking water: in 2008: 61: [Source: World Water worldwater.org

In the 2000s the percentage of population with access to safe water was 83 percent. Between a quarter and a third of China’s population didn’t have piped water. By one count 48 million people in China lacked sufficient drinking water. The number of people facing severe drinking water shortages doubled to 5.9 million in early 2008 because of a severe winter drought. In southern China many people traditionally have gotten their drinking water from ponds and lakes. The tap water in Beijing used to often have a funny smell and lots of particles in it.

In the 1990s, 360 million rural people lacked access to safe drinking water. Many more villages had access to electricity than running water. Running hot water was often considered a luxury that only the Chinese elite can afford.

Sanitation in China

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Water shortages
Sanitation facility access
improved: urban: 97.6 percent of population
rural: 90.6 percent of population
total: 94.9 percent of population
unimproved: urban: 2.4 percent of population
rural: 9.4 percent of population
total: 5.1 percent of population (2020 est.)
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Sanitation
Proportion of population using basic sanitation services: 70 percent.
Proportion of population using limited sanitation services: 23 percent.

Proportion of population using unimproved sanitation services: 92 percent.
Proportion of population practising open defecation: 3 percent.
[Source: UNICEF DATA data.unicef.org]

In the 1990s, many rural people lacked adequate sanitation. Outhouses and fields were what people used in villages not flush toilets.

Traditionally, nothing was wasted in China: human waste was (and still is in some places) collected from family outhouses and used as fertilizer. Outhouses in rural China were often placed near pig sties so waste could be collected from both sources and used for fertilizer. China has a long history of using human excrement — “night soil” — as fertilizer. The morning distribution of night soil used to be a common sight throughout China.

Drinking Water Standards in China

The China Daily reported: “Both urban and rural residents can expect to drink cleaner and healthier water with the introduction of new compulsory standards that take effect nationwide starting July 2012. The new standards are much stricter than the ones that have been in use since 1985, with the items tested increasing from 35 to 106. In fact, they almost match international standards, which means that tap water will be drinkable without being boiled if the standards are adhered to. [Source: China Daily, May 15, 2012]

The new and higher standards are necessary because of the pollution that is increasingly contaminating water sources. When drinking water was sourced directly from underground and from rivers or lakes that had no chemical and industrial plants nearby, even the old standards could guarantee water was safe to drink. But now even underground water has been contaminated in some places by industrial and agricultural pollutants.

“However, making standards is one thing, putting them into practice is another.That explains why the standards were actually made in 2007, but the central government allowed five years for governments at various levels to make preparations for their introduction. The minister of water resources promised that all rural residents will be provided with safe drinking water. But if the new standards are to be applied to the water for rural communities, greater efforts will be needed, as at least 242 million rural residents still do not have safe water to drink.

“Yet what is even more important than applying the new standards is protecting water sources from being polluted any further. In fact the repeated contamination of water sources in the past couple of years have offset or crippled the central government efforts. The same problem also happens in cities. For example, water from water works is safe, but if the pipelines are too old and fall short of the required standards the water may be contaminated by the time it reaches the tap. For many urban residents living in high rises, their tap water comes from the tanks in the buildings. If the tanks are not regularly cleaned as required, the water may not meet the new standards.

China Still Tests Bottled Drinking Water Using 'Soviet Standards' in the 2010s

In 2013, Patrick Boehler wrote in the South China Morning Post: “China still follows regulations adopted from the Soviet Union to test bottled drinking water, the Beijing News reported. "When the World Health Organisation updated its detection methods, [we] updated the standard for tap water, but not for bottled water," an unnamed expert with the Institute for Environmental Health and Related Product Safety in Beijing told the paper.According to these arcane regulations, China's national health inspectors do not test bottled drinking water for acidity, or pH level, or for substances including mercury and silver. [Source: Patrick Boehler, South China Morning Post, May 2, 2013]

More than five times more indicators are used to test running water than bottled drinking water, the paper said. "Bottled drinking water regulation is lagging behind," Wang Xiuyan, an adviser on mineral water for the Beijing Mining Industry Association, told the paper. "We should follow international standards. The bottled water market in the country is booming amid a general anxiety over tainted food productions and environmental degradation. Sales of bottled water grew from US$1 billion in 2000 to US$9 billion in 2012, according to Euromonitor

Village Wells in 19th Century China

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Village well
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”, published in 1899: “On the Great Plain of North China the wells are generally shallow, ranging from ten to thirty feet in depth; one of fifty feet would be unusual, though they are occasionally much deeper. The well is a very important feature of the outfit of a Chinese village, though never the scene of ablutions as in India. To save the labour of carrying water, all the animals are led to the well to drink, and the resultant mud makes the neighbourhood, especially in winter, very disagreeable. Rarely have they a cover of any sort, and the opening being level with the surface of the ground, it would seem inevitable that animals, children and blind persons, should be constantly falling in, — as indeed, occasionally, but seldom happens. Even the smallest bairns learn to have a wholesome fear of the opening, and ages of use have accustomed all Chinese to view such dangers with calm philosophy. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The business of sinking wells is an art by itself, and in regions where they are commonly used for irrigation, the villagers acquire a great reputation for expertness in the process. A village which desires a new well sends an invitation to the experts, and a party of men, numbering perhaps fifteen or twenty, responds. Though the work is fatiguing, difficult, and often dangerous, no money payment is generally offered or desired, but only a feast to all the workers, of the best food to be had. If the well is to be anything more than a water-pit, it is dug as deep as can be done without danger of caving in, and then the brick lining is let down from above. The basis of this is a strong board frame of the exact size of the opening, and wide enough to place the walling upon. A section of the wall is built upon this base, and the whole is firmly bound to the baseboard within and without by ropes or reed withes. The lining then resembles a barrel without the heads, and when completed is so strong that, though it be subjected to considerable and unequal strains, it will neither give nor fall apart.

“Several feet of the lining are lowered into the cavity, and as the digging proceeds the lining sinks, and the upper wall is built upon it. If it is desired to strike a permanent spring, this is accomplished by means of a large bamboo tube to which an iron-pointed head is fixed. The tube is driven down as far as it will go, the earth and sand being removed from within, and when a good supply of water is reached the opening is bricked up as usual. Such wells are comparatively rare, and proportionately valuable.

“Wherever the soil and water are favorable for market-gardens, the country-side abounds in irrigation wells, often only six feet in width, and provided with a double windlass or sweep. One may meet the gardeners carrying home the ropes, buckets, and the windlass itself, none of which can safely be left out over night. Village wells are often sunk on ground which is conjointly owned by several families. Like everything else Oriental, they furnish frequent occasions now, as in patriarchal times, for bitter feuds. Whenever one is especially unpopular in his village, the first threat is to cut off his water supply, though this is not often done.

Construction of Wells in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “In some districts quicksands prevent the sinking of any permanent wells. The villagers are obliged to be up all night in order to take their turn at the scanty water supply, and fights are not infrequent. In a dry year the suffering is serious. For evils of this sort tube-wells would seem to provide a remedy, but thus far there has been great difficulty in getting down to such a depth as to strike good water. The nature of the trouble was aptly described by a coolie employed by a foreigner on a work of this kind, who was asked why the pipe was not driven deeper. He replied that it was, but “the deeper they went the more there wasn’t any water” It would appear that in the direction of a good water supply, Western knowledge might be applied for the benefit of great numbers of Chinese and on a large scale, or if not on a large scale, then on a small one.

“As an illustration of the process by which this may be done, an experience of many years ago in a Shandong village is worthy of mention. One of the missionaries had the happiness of welcoming a second son to his household, an event which seemed to the Chinese of such happy omen that they were moved to unite in subscribing a fixed sum from each family in the village, to purchase a silver neck ornament for the infant. As the suggestion was not absolutely and peremptorily vetoed, the committee in charge went on and ordered the silver chain and padlock, after which the delicate question arose by what means this gift should be acknowledged. After canvassing many plans, one was at length hit upon which appeared to satisfy the requisite conditions, which were in brief that the thing bestowed should be a distinct benefit to all the people, and one which they could all appreciate.

It was proposed to put a force-pump in a village well not far from the mission premises, where much water was daily drawn by a great many people with a great deal of labour. The force-pump would make this toil mere child’s play. The plan was so plainly fore-ordained to success, that one of the missionaries — although not having the felicity of two sons — was moved to promise also a stone watering trough, which in Chinese phrase, would be a “Joy to Ten Thousand Generations.” The village committee listened gravely to these proposals without manifesting that exhilaration which the obviously successful nature of the innovation seemed to warrant, but promised to consider and report later. When the next meeting of this committee with the missionaries took place, the former expressed a wish to ask a few questions. They pointed out that there were four or five wells in the village. “Was it the intention of the Western foreign ‘shepherds’ to put a ‘water-sucker’ into each of these wells?” No, of course not; it was meant for the one nearest the mission premises. To this it was replied that the trinket for the shepherd’s child had been purchased by uniform contributions from each family in the village. Some of these families lived on the front street and some on the back one, some at the east end and some at the west end. “Would it be consistent with the ideal impartiality of Christianity to put a ‘water-sucker’ where it could only benefit a part of those for whom it was designed?”

“After an impressive silence the committee remarked that there was a further question which had occurred to them. This village, though better off than most of those about, had some families which owned not a foot of land. These landless persons had to pick up a living as they could. One way was by carrying and selling water from house to house in buckets. According to the account of the shepherds the new “water-sucker” would render it so easy to get water that any one could do it, and the occupation of drawers of water would be largely gone. It could not be the intention of the benevolent shepherds to throw a class of workmen out of work. What form of industry did the shepherds propose to furnish to the landless class, to compensate them for the loss of their livelihood? At this point the silence was even more impressive than before. After another pause the village committee returned to their questions. They said that Western inventions are very ingenious, but that Chinese villagers “attain unto stupidity.” As long as the Western shepherds were at hand to explain and to direct the use of the “water-suckers, ” all would doubtless go well; but they had noticed that Western inventions sometimes had a way of becoming injured by the tooth of time, or by bad management. Suppose that something of this sort took place with the “water-sucker, ” and suppose that no shepherd was at hand to repair or replace it, what should then be done after the villagers had come to depend upon it? This recalled the fact that a force-pump had been tried several years before in Peking, in the deep wells of that city, but the fine sand clogged the valves, and it had to be pulled up again! In view of these various considerations, is it surprising that the somewhat discouraged shepherds gave up the plan of interfering with Oriental industries, or that the obligation to the village was finally acknowledged by the payment of a sum of money which they used ostensibly for the repair of the rampart around the village, but which really went nobody knows where or to whom?

China’s Water Problems and Conflicts

Water problems in northern China alone include chronic droughts is ravaging farmland; the movement of the Gobi Desert eastward and southwater. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water. The rapid growth of megacities — 22 million people in Beijing and 12 million in Tianjin alone — has drained underground aquifers that took millenniums to fill.

In December 2010, China said it would invest $30 billion in water-saving projects in 2011 with the primary ai being to reduce the impact of drought, flooding and other natural disasters in grain production. The decision comes on the heels of severe droughts and flooding driving u food prices and fueling inflation and social discontent.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Communist Party has staked enormous prestige on the success of the project, which is supposed be a showpiece for President Hu Jintao's theories of "scientific development." Hu is a hydraulic engineer by training who began his career at Sinohydro, the state-owned dam builder responsible for much of the construction.” "This is on a par with the Great Wall, a project essential for the survival of China," Wang Shushan, who heads the project in Henan province, where much of the construction is now taking place, told the Los Angeles Times. "It is a must-do project. We can't afford to wait." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2010]

Access to water supplies has produce conflicts between downstream communities and up stream ones, farmers and factories and environmentalist and economic planners and even different cites. Many farmers have had their water supplies diverted for industrial use. One farmer who used to grow 35 bushels of wheat a year told the Washington Post that he stopped raising wheat when water was directed from a local river to a petrochemical plant. He said he now has trouble supplying enough drinking water to his family and has to use a well dug over 100 meters and shares it with other families to get the water.

In Beijing, because the water levels in the Minyun reservoir are too low and the water in the Guanting reservoir is too polluted to drink, water was has been diverted from a river than normally supplies water ro Tianjin, depriving that city of badly need water supplies. Even with that there isn’t enough water for Beijing. Beijing now gets three quarters of its water from underground aquifers, with drilling reaching to depths of 3000 meters, five times deeper than in the 1990s. Water shortages in Beijing were deemed so critical in the summer pf 2010 that the authorities announced the diversion of 200 million cubic meters of water from Hebei's farmfields to quench Beijing's thirst.

China’s Struggle for Water Security

In 1999, before he became China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao warned that water scarcity posed one of the greatest threats to the "survival of the nation". By the mid 2010s, according to AFP, the threat loomed ever larger, casting a forbidding shadow over China's energy and food security and demanding urgent solutions with significant regional, and even global, consequences. [Source: Giles Hewitt, AFP, April 17, 2015]

“The mounting pressure on China's scarce, unequally distributed and often highly polluted water supply was highlighted in a report released at the World Water Forum in Daegu, South Korea in April 2015. “Published by the Hong Kong-based NGO, China Water Risk (CWR), it underlined the complexity of the challenge facing China as it seeks to juggle inextricably linked and often competing concerns over water, energy supply and climate change. "There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to China's water-energy-climate nexus," the report said. "More importantly, China's energy choices do not only impact global climate change, but affect water availability for Asia," it said, warning of the danger of future "water wars" given China's upstream control over Asia's mightiest rivers.

The report said 93 percent of China's power generation is water-reliant, primarily in form of dams and hydropwer and fact that water is needed in coal-burning and nuclear power plants. "Chinese officials are starting to say water security comes first," the report's author Debra Tan told AFP. "Because without it, there is no energy security and, of course, no food security."

China's Depleted Aquifers, Aging Pipelines and Water That Is Too Cheap

Each year, Beijing consumes about 3.6 billion cubic meters of water — 127 billion cubic feet or 950 billion gallons — about half of which came from underground sources as of 2014 before the central route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project began bring water from the Yangtze River northward to Beijing. Water tables dropped by about 13 meters (42 feet) between 1998 and 2014. “Beijing has around six billion cubic meters of overpumped aquifers that need to be replenished,” a scientist told the New York Times.“Merely relying on the central route won’t solve the shortages. The fundamental solution should be to conserve water and control the size of Beijing’s population.” The central, or second, route of the South-North Water Diversion Project began operations a year after the eastern route. [Source: Kiki Zhao, New York Times, December 25, 2014]

In 2013, in an interview with the magazine Oriental Outlook, Wang Hao, who leads the Department of Water Resources, warned that Beijing’s underground water was being depleted. “The underground water level drops 90 centimeters” — more than 35 inches — “each year,” Mr. Wang said.

According to the New York Times: Another problem is aging water pipelines. “The pipeline networks in big cities, including Beijing, are old and water has been leaking,” said Wang Shichang, a specialist in water resources and a former professor at Tianjin University. Mr. Wang said in an interview that a major overhaul of the system was necessary but that little had been done. “People are very aware of the concept of saving water,” he said, but “there has not been much progress in recent years.”

“Another reason is the cheap price of water. In May 2014, for 90 percent of Beijing residents, the cost of a cubic meter of water rose 25 percent to 5 renminbi, or 80 cents. To encourage conservation, the price should be at least twice that, but there are no such plans under discussion, said the scientist with the Department of Water Resources. In 2008, to help overcome Beijing’s water shortages, an emergency supplement from reservoirs in Hebei, the province that encircles Beijing, was set up. This had delivered 1.6 billion cubic meters of water to the capital by last April, when the supply was halted.

Water Engineering and Management in China

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City water in some urban areas in the 1990s
“The need to meet the rising demand from these cities resulted in one of the world's most ambitious engineering projects, with an overall estimated cost of more than $80 billion. But experts stress that China cannot simply engineer its way out of its water crisis with headline mega-projects that will never be big enough to keep pace with increasing demand.

“A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in January 2015 warned that large-scale water transfers would actually exacerbate problems in the long-run. "China needs to shift its focus to water demand management instead of a supply-oriented approach," said the study's co-author, Dabo Guan, a professor at the University of East Anglia. "The current transfer programme is pouring good water after bad: the problems of water-stressed regions aren't being alleviated and the provinces sharing their water are suffering greatly," Guan said.

“China is in fact implementing an extremely ambitious water management strategy, albeit one that risks being undermined by inter-departmental rivalries, corruption and incentives that favour economic development over sustainable resource use. In 2011, it issued its "three red lines" policy establishing strict limits on water quantity usage, efficiency and quality, while this year a new Environment Law came into force with harsh fines for polluters. State media reported last year that 60 percent of China's groundwater and more than half its major freshwater lakes were polluted. "Before, there wasn't much of a stick for punishing wastage and polluting," said CWR's Tan. "Now there are strict standards and a very big stick."

“Having experimented with charging urban residents for water in order to encourage conservation, the government is reportedly set to roll out a tiered pricing system for residential users in all cities and some towns nationwide in 2015

Water Conservation in China

Irrigation was important in China's traditional agriculture, and some facilities existed as long as 2,000 years ago. The extension of water conservancy facilities by labor-intensive means was an important part of the agricultural development programs of the 1950s. During the Great Leap Forward, a number of water conservancy projects were undertaken, but with insufficient planning and capital. During the turmoil and bad weather of 1959-61, many water conservancy works were washed out by floods or otherwise destroyed, considerably reducing the irrigated acreage. Facilities were rebuilt in the early 1960s. By the 1980s irrigation facilities covered nearly half the cultivated land; systems installed since the late 1960s extended over a considerable part of north China, especially on the North China Plain. [Source: Library of Congress]

“In the era of post-Mao reform, irrigation and drainage systems expanded to increase the stock of stable and high-yielding land. The inventory of mechanical pumps also greatly increased; powered irrigation equipment reached almost 80 million horsepower in 1985. In this period the government began to charge fees for the water the farmers used, and farmers therefore limited the amount of water applied to their crops on a benefit cost basis. The reorganization of rural institutions weakened administrative measures necessary to make large- scale waterworks function. Lowered investment, poor maintenance, and outright damage to facilities lessened the effectiveness of the system. Adding additional acreage was likely to be increasingly costly because areas not under irrigation were remote from easily tapped water sources. In the mid-1980s government officials recognized the problems and undertook to correct them.

“North China is chronically short of water and subject to frequent droughts. A considerable proportion of its irrigation water comes from wells. Officials in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power (and its predecessors) have periodically proposed diverting water from the Yangtze to irrigate the North China Plain. Farmers have also been encouraged to use sprinkler systems, a more efficient use of scarce water resources than flood-type irrigation systems.

South-North Water Diversion Project

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project, also translated as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, is one of the world’s most ambitious, and controversial, engineering projects. The project, which took 50 years to get off the ground and another 50 years to complete, aims to solve the country's worsening drought problems with three giant channels that divert part of the Yangtze river towards the Yellow River and thirsty cities and factories around Beijing. More than twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam and three times longer than the railway to Tibet, the project aims to bring 50 billion cubic meters of water a year — equivalent to the annual flow of the Yellow River — from relatively well-watered southern China to water-starved northern China along three routes in western, central and eastern China. The main beneficiaries are Beijing, the industrial hub of Tianjin and Jiangsu and Shandong provinces in the east.

First proposed in 1952, the scheme was approved by Mao Zedong, who said it was fine for the south to “lend a little water”, but until recently the government has not had the money or technical ability to go ahead. Work began in December 2002. The project involved building three canals — two of them more than 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) long — that will link four major rivers: the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, Huige River and Haihe River. The Eastern Chanel opened in 2013; the Central Chanel opened in 2014. The third canal, the Western Chanel, is still largely on the drawing boards.

Image Sources: 1) Metropolitan News; 2) Xinhua; 3) Beifan.com 4) Gary Braasch

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022


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