The six countries that share the Mekong River are experiencing a remarkable transformation. The area has seen its economy grow by more than 6 per cent a year since 1992.

To support this growth, the governments in the region, backed by international development agencies, are implementing about US$3.4 billion worth of infrastructure projects. Some 40 other projects - totalling an estimated US$10-15 billion - are in the works. These development initiatives cover telecommunications, energy, cross-border trade, tourism and various other sectors.

The countries in the region and their international development partners recognize that rapid, dynamic growth brings with it social and environmental challenges.

There is mounting evidence from the six Mekong countries that all forms of biodiversity - ecosystems, species, and genetic resources - are being lost at unprecedented rates. It is difficult to assess how quickly species are being lost due to the complexities of ecosystems. However, high rates of degradation in land, freshwater, and marine habitats are warning us of high losses.

Unless action is taken and soon, it is probable that the Mekong region will lose more than 50 per cent of its remaining land and water habitats over the next century, a third over the next few decades alone, leading to poor and unstable natural, social, and economic systems which will undermine development efforts that are now under way.

The region's economy depends on a healthy environment. Agriculture and natural resources provide livelihoods for at least half the area's population, and make a significant contribution to the gross regional product. Many of those who depend on natural resources are the most vulnerable people in society.

The countries in the region are aware of the serious challenges confronting them. They appreciate that sustained economic growth and poverty reduction are inextricably linked to the condition and performance of the environment. They have stated this repeatedly in regional meetings.

The governments and their development partners are working together to address the transformation of the region's natural systems that is taking place. The planned infrastructure projects will require pro-active environmental management to prevent and mitigate negative social and environmental consequences. But this is not enough.

In the coming years, increased investment must be made in using natural resources, safeguarding ecological systems and enhancing environmental quality. Continued economic growth and balanced development will depend on this emphasis.

A new major focus is the Greater Mekong Subregion Core Environment Programme, which is designed to create a framework for long-term environmental investment in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam and China.

This programme could be a watershed in the way development is planned and implemented in the region. But it can only be achieved through political will and strong and active partnerships between governments, local communities, non-governmental organizations and the wider community.

Every now and again in the history of a region, a major leap forward takes place in thinking and in the evolution of policy and institutions. We are at such a point in the Greater Mekong Subregion.

There is an acute recognition by senior decision makers that urgent and effective conservation action is now critical for the continuing development of the region. This is a priority, which needs to be at centre stage in the years to come.