Cabinet indecision delays Pokhara Airport
Work has finally begun to slice off a hill blocking the runway at Pokhara’s new international airport, however delays in government approval is likely to push back the 10 July 2021 target date for the project’s inauguration.
The forested Rithepani Hill needs to be reduced by 40m because of its proximity to the eastern threshold of the runway at Nepal’s third aerial gateway that can handle direct international flights.
Excavators are at work on one side of the hill that is owned by private individuals, however the southern government-owned side cannot be levelled until the Department of Forest gives its approval to cut trees.
“We are still awaiting the Cabinet decision to go ahead with reducing the elevation of the hill, it is the last hurdle in opening the airport on time by July,” says airport project chief Binesh Munakarmi.
While the government seems to be very eager to clear-cut 8,000 hectares of native hardwood forests in the Tarai for the proposed Nijgad airport despite a Supreme Court restraining order, it is dragging its feet on giving permission to cut 600 trees in Pokhara so that the height of the hill can be lowered.
Even though an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) had been done before construction of the airport began five years ago, the Cabinet is Kathmandu has not approved the felling of the trees so that the airport work can be finished.
According to Kedar Baral of the Kaski District Forest Division, the project needs to plant 25 saplings in a nearby alternative site for every tree that is cut. He added that the trees that need to be felled have already been marked, and his office is only waiting for a Cabinet decision.
The project was first planned in 1970, but had been delayed by decades of turf battles, local opposition and lack of political will, construction of the $216 million facility that can handle 800,000 passengers a year is currently getting finishing touches.
Most of the work on the terminal building, runway, apron, taxiway and hangar have been finished. Although the Chinese contractor Sinomach was supposed to hand over the airport in December last year, the pandemic further delayed the project by a year.
Although tourism in Pokhara has collapsed due to the pandemic, businesses here hope that the airport will be a catalyst for the revival of the economy of Central Nepal in 2022.
UPDATE 23 MARCH 0700: The Cabinet on Monday approved the flattening of the top of Ritthepani Hill by 40m, as well as the felling of 600 trees. This removes the last hurdle for the completion of the project.