By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan and Israel signed an agreement to go ahead with a World Bank-sponsored project to build a desalination plant in the Gulf of Aqaba and a pipeline linking the Red Sea with the Dead Sea.
The plant will be built in the southern Jordanian port of Aqaba on the Red Sea and will desalinate water to be shared by Israelis and Palestinians. The brine that is a byproduct of the process will be sent north in a 112-mile (180-km) pipeline to the Dead Sea.
The project will cost around $900 million. It will take nearly three years to complete.
Jordanian officials said the two projects were crucial to providing a source of fresh water to the kingdom, which faces a severe water deficit, and to reviving the shrinking Dead Sea.
"The deal will help satisfy Jordan's increasing water needs for development," Jordan's water minister, Hazem al Nasser, said after the agreement was signed.
The desalination plant will produce at least 80 million cubic meters annually. Israel will buy at cost up to 40 million cubic meters. The rest will go to Aqaba.
Nasser said the pipeline will pump 300 million cubic meters annually of Red Sea water to the Dead Sea. As much as 2 billion cubic meters are envisioned in a future expansion.
The idea of linking the two bodies of water has been around for more than a century. The Dead Sea has been found to be receding at a rate of more than 3.3 feet (1 meter) every year.
Under the agreement, Nasser said, Israel would also release 50 million cubic meters more water from the Sea of Galilee, its largest reservoir, to Jordan, beyond water-sharing stipulated in a 1994 peace agreement.
Israeli National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom said the project would bring water from the desalination plant for farmers in southern Israel and drinking water to the north.
The Palestinians who have long complained about Israeli restrictions on constructing new water infrastructure and what they say is illegal pumping from their underground aquifers in the West Bank will also get water from the plant, Nasser said.
The project began to move ahead two years ago after the World Bank determined it is possible to use the Red Sea to replenish the shrinking Dead Sea after years of studying whether such a connecting lifeline could work.
(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem)