China must sharply improve environmental protection or it could face disaster following two decades of breakneck growth that have poisoned its air, water and soil, the country's top environmental official warned Saturday.

The director of the State Environmental Protection Administration said that more than half of China's 21,000 chemical companies are near the Yangtze and Yellow rivers — drinking water for tens of millions of people — and accidents could lead to "disastrous consequences."

"Facts have proved that prosperity at the expense of the environment is very superficial and very weak," Zhou Shengxian said at a news conference during the annual meeting of China's parliament. "It's only delaying disaster."

China's cities are among the world's smoggiest and the government says its major rivers are badly polluted, leaving hundreds of millions of people without enough clean drinking water.

Protests have erupted throughout the country over farmers' complaints that uncontrolled factory discharges are ruining crops and poisoning water.

Environmental protection took on new urgency for Chinese leaders after a Nov. 13 chemical spill in a northeastern river forced a city to shut down its water supply, and sent pollutants flowing into Russia.

Zhou's agency said in a report that its goals for this year include better prevention and control of pollution in major rivers, stricter environmental law enforcement and increased supervision of nuclear and radiation safety.

The agency also will develop an environmental law enforcement team, it said.

"What we are aiming for is achieving coordinated economic social development and environmental protection while putting emphasis on environmental protection," Zhou said.

"At this stage we cannot passively protect our environment by simply stopping economic development," he said. "Yet we cannot be lenient on those polluters."

The National Development and Reform Commission said in a report released during the news conference that China, which is hungry for energy and other resources, is hoping to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent in 2006.

"We will have some difficulties in realizing this objective," said Jiang Weixin, a vice chairman of the commission. "But we must make huge efforts to realize this objective."

He said the nation will push industrial restructuring to accelerate development of high-tech businesses, and shut down facilities with high pollution and energy consumption levels.

Zhou took office after the outcry over the November river spill forced the resignation of his predecessor, who became the highest-ranking Chinese official ousted over an environmental incident.

The spill of potentially cancer-causing chemicals used in dyes and resins into the Songhua River prompted fears that the contaminants could be trapped in winter ice and cause long-term contamination.

Zhou said farm products from the region have been found safe and experts from China and Russia have concluded that the spring thaw will not release more pollutants.

"Last night I received a piece of most exciting news from the Russian side, that they had reached the same conclusion as ours: that there will be no second pollution of the Songhua River this spring," he said.

He said the government has completed a long-term river management plan that puts top priority on pollution prevention and treatment.

"If in the past, in terms of environmental protection, we were very passive ... now there has been a U-turn," Zhou said.

Other officials said this week that the government plans to focus on improving environmental protection and quality of life as part of its next five-year economic development program.