The Dead Sea is facing disaster as it is losing a metre in depth each year.

Jordan, which launched an initiative two years ago to try to save it, said this week the World Bank was due to fund a $10 million feasibility study for its scheme.

On Thursday, the EU pledged it would start negotiations between member governments by the end of the year to agree on possible financial support for the project, whose initial phase costs $1 billion.

Alarming drop

"We believe that this programme would be very important for the future of the region and the people," said EU official Walter Mazziti at a five-day conference on water management attended by 1000 experts from 32 Arab and foreign countries.

"It seems that the world is convinced more than ever on the need to move as quickly as possible to protect the environment of
the Dead Sea"

Hazim Nassir,
Jordan's Agriculture minister

"I think that the (EU's) economic financial support will also be strong," said Mazziti, chairman of the European Taskforce on water for the peace process-EU.

Jordan's Agriculture Minister Hazim Nasir said that unless water was pumped into the Dead Sea - so named because it is too salty to support life - it would vanish in half a century.

The Dead Sea is 412 metres below sea level as opposed to its historic levels of 392 metres.

"Everybody is concerned and we'd like to work together to try to find a way to protect the Dead Sea," Nassir told reporters at the close of the conference.

Consensus

The minister said Israel and other countries in the region had for decades been diverting Jordan River water, the Dead Sea's main supplier, for agricultural use, draining the sea.

At the conference, Jordan urged support for the so-called Red-Dead initiative, which sees the pumping of over 880 million cubic metres per year from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Nasir was quoted on Wednesday as saying the World Bank was expected to fund the feasibility study, and that Jordan would begin discussions with the bank on the plan.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority both back the project. The minister said there had been meetings and negotiations with both parties to discuss the issue.

"It seems that the world is convinced more than ever on the need to move as quickly as possible to protect the environment of the Dead Sea," the minister said.