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Is Nepal’s New Airport Dream an Environmental Nightmare?

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Is Nepal’s New Airport Dream an Environmental Nightmare?

Nepal’s Supreme Court halted the construction of a new international airport as it considers a protest from environmental groups.

Is Nepal’s New Airport Dream an Environmental Nightmare?

The planned layout of the Nijgadh airport and “airport city.”

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Nijgadh

Studies have ranked Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), the only international airport of Nepal, as one of the worst airports in South Asia in terms of security, traffic jams, and other facilities. Nepal desperately needs another international airport in order to tackle the growing flow of international passengers.

According to a report published by the Asian Development Bank, the number of international passengers at TIA will reach 7.29 million by 2028 and the current airport cannot handle that many travelers.

Realizing the importance of a new airport, Nepal’s government initiated the process of constructing a second international airport in Nijgadh, in the Bara district on Nepal’s southern plain, three decades ago, but there has been no progress yet. In recent years, the government has taken some initiatives to hasten the construction of the airport but it has meet with strong opposition from environmentalists. Now a recent court order has put further progress on hold.

The government plans to develop this airport in Nijgadh as an international hub for 22 countries. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal had started acquiring land for the construction and has already made an agreement with the Nepal Army to cut trees to clear space.

According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prepared by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation unveiled last year, 2.4 million trees, both big and small, will have to be felled to construct the airport. Environmentalists are protesting the plan, stating that it will have a devastating effect on the environment. Activists are urging the government to change the location of the airport and chose a new site where there will be minimal environmental impact.

To that end, a group of environmentalists has filed a petition at the Supreme Court of Nepal seeking a judiciary intervention to stop to the felling of a large number of trees. After the initial hearing, the Supreme Court has ordered the government to put the process on hold until the final verdict is made, which has created uncertainty about the construction. Despite that, the government seems hell-bent to construct the airport at Nijgadh, projecting this project as a point of national pride.

Along with cutting trees, environmentalists say there will be other serious environmental impacts too. According to the EIA report, there will be potential adverse impacts from both construction and operation of the airport. Construction-related impacts include changes in land use, air pollution, noise pollution, operation of quarry sites, and changes in the drainage network, soil erosion, and operation of the work camps. Operational impacts include changes in the surface hydrology and ground water hydrology, soil erosion, changes in the micro climate, air pollution, noise pollution, and climate change.

In addition, the proposed site of airport construction is regarded as a corridor for wild animals such as tigers, elephants, and others. “The noise of the aircraft during landing and takeoff and other noises are likely to keep wild animals away from the forest area of the airport area vicinity,” the report says.

One of the major sticking points is that the government has not come up with a plan for planting trees to compensate for the ones to be cut down during airport construction. The Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Civil Aviation, which is mandated to construct the airport, is seeking permission from the Forest Ministry to cut down the trees. But the Forest Ministry is urging the creation of concrete plan that accounts for the cost of planting new saplings and identifies the land where those saplings will be planted.

According to Captain Prachanda Jung Shah, who worked in aviation sector for more than 40 years, Nijgadh is the best location for the second international airport. However, Shah said that there is fault on the part of government because it has failed to come up with a concrete plan for construction, including the protection of the environment. “There is no clarity on the Detailed Project Report (DPR),” he says. “It seems the government’s only focus is on cutting down the trees without any credible plan and this has raised doubts among environmentalists that the airport may not be constructed after cutting down the trees.”

The environmental debate over the proposed international airport is not only confined to Nepal — there are growing international concerns. In an interview with BBC World Service during his visit to the United Kingdom in June 2019, Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli faced a question about the plan to cut down trees for the construction of the airport. Oli responded by saying, “If we cut 2.5 million trees, we can plant 5 million of them by acquiring necessary lands.”  Oli further added that as 45 percent of Nepali land is covered by forests, there is not much cause for concern.

Environmentalists, however, are not convinced by the government’s assurance of planting compensatory trees. There have been several examples of big development projects where there was no replanting after the original trees were cut down. The tendency to fell trees without showing the same level of seriousness to planting compensatory trees has created doubts among environmentalists about the Nijgadh airport plans.

The plan to build a second international airport goes back over 25 years. Two major plane crashes in 1992 — Thai Airways Flight 311, which claimed 310 lives, and Pakistan Airlines Flight 268, which claimed 300 lives — highlighted the need for another international airport, according to government officials. It is very difficult to land planes in the capital of Kathmandu due to the bowl-like shape of the Kathmandu valley, which is surrounded by hills.

Citing the examples of these two plane crashes, ministers and government officials consistently say that there is no alternative to constructing an airport in the Nijgadh area. Authorities say that location was chosen only after detailed study of other potential areas as well.

A white paper issued by the government regarding the airport construction says, “The TIA’s capacity has reached a saturation point, so we urgently need a second international airport. Nijgadh provides wider airspace.”

What also enlarges the airport’s scope, the white paper further argues, is that passengers from the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh can use it. Additionally, it says, fuel prices will be lower, given the shorter distance to the border town of Birgunj, the main trading point between Nepal and India.

Government officials blame some environmentalists for trying to block airport construction by raising the issue of environmental impact. They argue that it is not necessary to cut down 2.4 million trees, even though this is the number mentioned in the EIA report. Amid concerns over the environmental impact, government ministers and officials in Nepal often argue that big countries are responsible for emitting large amount of greenhouse gases, doing far more damage overall to the environment.

Environmentalists, however, argue that it could be difficult to collect funds for the construction of the airport if environmental issues are not addressed. They say big international companies are unlikely to invest in projects that have negative impacts on the environment. “As our domestic resources are insufficient for the airport, we have to raise funds from international investors and they are unlikely to fund projects that have a big environmental impact, a prominent global agenda now,” says prominent environmentalist Prabhu Budathoki.

However, during the Nepal Investment Summit held in April 2019, this airport attracted bids from six international investors, including Qatar. According to government estimates, $3.5 billion is required to develop the Nijgadh airport.

Along with plans to construct a large international airport in Nijgadh, Nepal is upgrading its domestic airports too. A regional airport is under construction in Pokhara, a popular tourist city in western Nepal. Similarly, Gautam Buddha International Airport is under construction. Both these airports are for domestic flights only.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based writer and journalist.