By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - It is possible to use the Red Sea to replenish the shrinking Dead Sea, the World Bank has determined after years of studying whether such a connecting lifeline could work.
The idea of linking the two bodies of water has been around for more than a century, but the project took on a new urgency when the shore of the Dead Sea was found to be receding at a rate of more than one meter (3.3 feet) every year.
A World Bank feasibility report published this month said an underground pipeline would be the best way to channel water from the Red Sea some 180 km (112 miles) north to replenish the Dead Sea, which is located at the lowest spot on earth.
Because of the water current created with the drop in elevation, it would even be possible to construct desalination and hydroelectric plants along the route, the World Bank said.
It also mentioned the options of using tunnels and canals.
Environmental groups blasted the report and warned of adverse effects, such as the chance of new algae and mineral deposits changing the color of the Dead Sea or underground fresh water springs becoming polluted with seawater.
The World Bank said it found that such negative impacts could be "mitigated and managed to an acceptable level".
The Dead Sea, technically a lake, is a tourist spot famous for its salty waters that allow bathers to float. Its mineral rich mud, used for skin treatment, is sold around the world.
But as the population increased in the region, water was diverted from the Jordan river, the Dead Sea's natural water source, for drinking and agriculture.
The shoreline has in turn shrunk at an accelerating pace, leaving behind a rocky, desert beach full of dangerous sink holes. Factories extracting minerals from the lake have also caused the shift in coastline.
The environmental group Friends of the Middle East said the World Bank study should be scrapped and called for focus to be shifted to rehabilitating the Jordan river and limiting the factories' operations.
The Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit would run through Jordan and cost about $10 billion, conveying up to 2 billion cubic meters of water a year, according the report. Projects of similar scope have been built in South Africa, Brazil and at the Central Arizona Project in the United States.
Further study and discussion among Israel, Jordan and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority -- the governments bordering the Dead Sea who in 2005 tapped the World Bank to study the concept -- before any decision is taken.
If the project is approved, it could be about 10 years before work actually begins, the World Bank said.
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)