A senior United Nations official warns that economic inequalities in the Asia-Pacific region could worsen as energy costs rise. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, energy security and poverty reduction are key themes at this week's meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

To the strains of Verdi's "Va Pensiero", the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific opened its annual conference Monday. The delegates in Bangkok will focus on the need to secure affordable energy to fuel the region's development.

UNESCAP Executive Secretary Noeleen Heyzer said in her opening address that rising social inequalities, exacerbated by record high oil prices, could trigger an "imminent crisis" if lower-income groups begin to lose ground.

"Income inequalities have led, among others, to serious social and environmental imbalances. An increasing part of the region house the world's poor and live in areas where the environment is under stress," she said. "The poorest people may use less energy but actually pay proportionately more than the rich for energy services. These high levels of inequality erode social cohesion in the region."

The Asia-Pacific region is home to 641 million of the world's poor. Many development experts fear that number will increase because of rising food prices and rocketing oil costs.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej urged the delegates to push for reforms that ensure environmentally sustainable energy supplies.

"Our region urgently and seriously needs to consider energy management reform, promotion of cooperation in the energy sector, efficient energy usage, clean energy promotion, and development of alternative and renewable energy," said Samak.

A new UNESCAP report calls energy security the key challenge to the region's development.

The report says energy consumption in the region has doubled since 1980 because of high economic growth and growing populations. Over the next 22 years, it says, the region will need up to nine trillion dollars in new infrastructure to meet its energy needs.

UNESCAP chief Heyzer says governments can not do the job alone.

"It's time to hold the private sector accountable and obviously they are a player and they have to be accountable to progress and also the way they use scare resources," she said. "At the same time, governments have got to have the right policies."

The U.N. report urges governments to work with businesses to find renewable energy sources for the region.