“From Tokyo to Tehran, from Singapore to Samarkand, and from points beyond to those in between, the network now spans 32 countries and encompasses more than 140,000 kilometres,” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message to ministers at the signing ceremony in Shanghai delivered by Kim Hak-su, Executive Director of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).When finished, the Highway would ease border crossing for people, vehicles and goods and give the much-needed benefits to landlocked countries envisioned by a UN conference last August in Alamaty, Kazakhstan, Mr. Annan said.The Bangkok-based ESCAP has been negotiating routes and road specifications for the network since 1992. The 32 countries approved the text of an agreement for upgrading sub-standard stretches and building new links in last November. At that time, UN officials estimated that 10 to 15 countries would have completed the regulatory processes needed for the signing at the Commission’s annual meeting.In a separate message to ESCAP’s 60th ministerial session, also read by Mr. Kim, Mr. Annan noted that more people have been escaping poverty in the region than in any other part of the world. He challenged the region now to grapple with the problems of lessening the gap between rich and poor, improving environmental stewardship and reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.Noting that more than a billion people in the region were living on less than a dollar a day, he urged the ministers to use the world’s highest financial reserves and rate of savings per capita to promote further development and reduce economic disparity.The strain of becoming a global economic powerhouse was being shown in the clearing of forests, loss of biodiversity, desertification, air pollution and persistent haze, along with an increase in manmade disasters, Mr. Annan said.”These indicators show that the production and consumption of natural resources fuelling the region’s development are unsustainable. The region must give greater priority to environmental stewardship,” he said.Meanwhile, more than 8 million people in the region now live with HIV/AIDS and the number has been rising, he said.Left unchecked, the disease would soak up resources that were badly needed for social and economic development. “We know, from experience elsewhere, that the spread can be turned back when – but only when – there is a coordinated response, from all sectors of society and every branch of Government,” Mr. Annan said.Addressing these issues would allow regional governments to “bring into the circle of development and peace the many millions of people in Asia and the Pacific who have gone too long without, to the detriment of us all,” he said.