Combating poverty and developing the economies of Southeast Asia's Mekong River region are the focus of an international conference taking place in Australia. As the conference opened, the Australian government announced a major increase in its spending on energy and infrastructure in the region. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney, where the conference is being held.

The Mekong is the 11th longest river in the world. The name means "Mother of Rivers" in the language of Laos, one of the countries the river passes through. It provides livelihoods for 60 million people, many of them among the poorest in the region.

The conference at Sydney University is looking at ways to improve economic opportunity and water management along with environmental protection along the river's banks.

The Australian government, through its international aid agency, AusAID, has been active in the Mekong region for years. On Wednesday, the government announced a new package of $140 million, to improve transportation links to markets, electricity supplies and water management in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

However, Associate Professor Philip Hirsch of Sydney University says if development isn't carefully monitored, the region could be damaged.

"The fundamental challenge is that it's a region with very high rates of growth," Hirsch explained. "It's also a region where there is a significant amount of poverty. Many of those who live in poverty are very closely dependent on the resources of the Mekong River and the Mekong River basin, which means that if development is to proceed without care, there's potential to alleviate poverty, but also to exacerbate it."

The Greater Mekong basin also includes China, Burma and Thailand along with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. China's activities in the region are also under discussion.

In recent years, the authorities in Beijing have deepening and widening the river to improve trade access to Southeast Asia.

The construction of dams on the Mekong by both China and Thailand has been criticized by communities downstream, which fear their livelihoods will be affected.