The project, estimated to cost over $3.5 billion, would solve the region's water shortage and also generate electricity and prevent the Dead Sea from drying up.

Water levels in the Dead Sea, which straddles Jordan and Israel, have fallen 27 metres in the last 50 years.

Under the canal project, the water would be taken out of the Red Sea at Aqaba in Jordan, raised 170 metres above sea level and then allowed to descend to the Dead Sea, which at 417 metres below sea level, is the lowest place on earth.

Israeli and Jordanian officials said the $20 million feasibility study, to be partly funded by the World Bank, would focus mostly on the project's environmental impact.

Hurdles

The huge costs and the risks of damaging the Red Sea's coral reef and diluting the Dead Sea's medicinal properties along with political tensions have so far stood in the way of the project.

But better prospects of Middle East peacemaking have helped push Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to revive the plan which could take a decade, a Jordanian official said.

Jordanian officials said the canal would generate 850 million cubic metres of drinking and agricultural water.

The Dead Sea, which lies 180km north of the Red Sea, is the world's saltiest body of water. But energy harnessed from water flowing down the canal from the Red Sea would be used to power a desalination project.

"At this stage, it's a feasibility study. It could take two years. The experts from all sides will check the project from environmental and economic aspects"

Ghassan al-Khatib,
Palestinian planning minister
 

"At this stage, it's a feasibility study. It could take two years. The experts from all sides will check the project from environmental and economic aspects," said Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan al-Khatib who attended the signing meeting on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

Israeli and Jordanian officials have said the project would cement Arab-Israeli regional economic integration. But Palestinians fear it could affect their water rights in a future settlement with Israel on a state.

"The tripartite meeting is of political importance as it contributes to the advancement and closening of ties between the countries of the region," said Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer who was also at the meeting.