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Water from an algae-filled lake in Anhui province, June 16, 2009. A senior Chinese official says the country is facing serious water shortages and without action, the problem will only get worse.Reuters

Chinese officials have issued a stark warning over growing water shortages, saying the situation is worsening every day and that more than two-thirds of cities have a water shortage.

The world's second-largest economy, is struggling to deal with the costs of the immense environmental degradation that has accompanied economic growth. Worsening water shortages and water pollution pose a growing threat to economic and social development, said Hu Siyi, vice-minister of water resources, on Thursday.

"The constraints of our available water resources become more apparent day by day," Mr. Hu said. "The situation is extremely serious in many areas. With overdevelopment, water use has already surpassed what our natural resources can bear.

"If we don't take strong and firm measures, it will be hard to reverse the severe shortages and daily exacerbation of the water situation."

Beijing has tried to address the issue with a series of policies that limit consumption, control pollution and increase monitoring of far-flung waterways.

The government has also invested huge amounts of money in water conservation, irrigation and management systems, and plans to spend 4 trillion yuan ($638-billion U.S.) on the sector over the next 10 years.

Ma Jun, a well known environmental activist and water expert, says the government's policies have been moving in the right direction, but have failed to curb growing demand.

"We have built all these dams, we are drilling increasingly deeper to tap into aquifers, many cities are building water diversion projects – in some ways we are reaching our limits in terms of water supply," Mr. Ma said.

A potent heavy-metal spill in the southern river of Longjiang recently highlighted the challenges the government faces, as it tries to address water pollution issues. The cadmium spill, which was initially covered up by local officials, contaminated more than 300 kilometres of the river and became a big news event in China.

Two-thirds of China's cities are short of water, nearly 300 million country dwellers lack access to safe drinking water, and two-thirds of China's lakes have chemical deficiencies caused by pollution, according to government estimates.

Environmentalists say many water policies have had a limited impact, because of the difficulty in enforcing rules on the ground, where local officials may prize GDP growth – long a consideration for official promotion – over meeting environmental guidelines.

In an unusual gesture for a Chinese official, Mr. Hu acknowledged some of these failings on Thursday. "If our original weak water resource management policies and methods are continued, the pressing demands for water that is needed to improve people's livelihoods and economic development will be difficult to meet," he said.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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