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The nation's top environmental body is going into overdrive to improve the country's water environment.

With water shortages hitting supplies in many parts of China and pollution levels still at dangerously high levels, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) is stepping up its efforts to turn the tide.

"The top priority of China's environmental protection work should be to ensure clean drinking water for the people," said Minister of SEPA Xie Zhenhua.

He made the remark during an interview with China Daily on the eve of the World Environment Day which falls today.

The theme for the year is "Water: Two Billion People are Dying for it."

Water pollution continues to be a major issue confronting the nation in spite of government efforts to clamp down on the worst polluters.

"The pollution of the water environment and the loss of balance in the aquatic ecosystem has seriously affected sustainable economic development and endangered the safety of drinking water in certain areas," Xie said.

The problem is exacerbated by the serious water shortages that have plagued many parts of China for consecutive years. To address the problem, the administration will step up its watch on the discharge of pollutants.

With pollution levels 70 per cent in excess of sustainable levels in 2002, the administration will only allow new industrial projects in a specific area if there are guarantees that they pose no additional risk to the environment, said Xie.

"This can be achieved through improving old polluting enterprises, reducing the pollutants they discharge, while imposing stricter environmental requirements on newcomers," said Xie.

Clean production methods and the recycling of water resources should be favoured in the choice of new industries.

"No enterprise should discharge effluent without proper certificates issued by the administration. The certificates should specify the amount and pollutant content of sewage that an enterprise is allowed to discharge," Xie said.

Huge levels of industrial effluent are a major source of pollution in China's waters.

To achieve the goal, the administration will conduct a national investigation later this year to identify and punish those who flout existing rules.

Meanwhile, the administration has pledged to treat existing polluted waters.

"Local government should raise the necessary funds and produce a list to start a campaign to treat one polluting enterprise and polluted river after another," said Xie.

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