Aborted landing in Nijgad

The Supreme Court last week ordered the government to scrap all decisions it has taken so far to build a new international airport in Nijgad 80km south of Kathmandu.

The justices faulted an amateurish Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) that ignored the ecological cost of the $3.5 billion project. Activists rejoiced in Kathmandu even as Finance Minister Janardan Sharma set aside money in his budget speech on 29 May for construction to go ahead, and a multi-partisan committee in Parliament vowed the project would go ahead. 

In a tragic twist of fate, the Tara Air crash this week claimed the life of Makar Tamang and his entire family. Tamang had been an active campaigner for regenerating Tarai forests through the Mithila Wildlife Trust, which is also trying to save what is left of Nijgad's jungles.

We have weighed both sides of the argument: the need to plan for growth in passenger volume with the environmental and economic cost of such a gigantic project. 

The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) argues that Kathmandu airport was built for 9.2 million passengers a year, and has exceeded its capacity. Passenger volume is growing at 20% a year and at that rate, Kathmandu alone will have to handle 25 million passengers per year by 2040. 

Because of terrain, Kathmandu cannot have automatic ILS landing needed for operations in poor visibility — increasingly the case due to worsening air pollution. And the new airports in Pokhara and Bhairawa just do not have the capacity to relieve Kathmandu’s pressure. 

However, activists argue that Nijgad is already an environmental disaster. The airport’s first phase will mean felling 600,000 trees over 2,500 hectares of the last remaining native Char Kose Jhari forest that once covered the entire Tarai.

Infrastructure economists also say that Nijgad will mire Nepal in Sri Lanka-scale foreign debt at a time when the economics of global aviation is changing due to longer-range airliners from the hub-and-spoke model, for which Nijgad was originally designed, to point-to-point flights.

Property speculators and squatters have already settled in parts of where Nijgad airport will be built.

Not only was the EIA shoddily done, but the business model for the airport is not viable. Nijgad will still be at least 1 hour away from Kathmandu after the expressway is built.

Given the track record of Nepal’s governments in non-implementation of ‘national pride’ projects like Melamchi, Pokhara airport, the MCC, or the highway to Kerung, Nepal just does not have the decision-making and management wherewithal, nor the culture of transparency to handle an infrastructure scheme on this scale. 

Nijgad is a colossal white elephant. It is a gigantic logging concession masquerading as an airport project. It is a lethal mixture of kleptomania and megalomania. Federal and Madhes Province politicians seem to have done their back of the envelope calculations about how much hardwood timber from 600,000 trees will be worth.

Officials have tried to assure us that there will be 20 trees planted for every tree cut. Where have we heard that one before? And where will those 14,400,000 trees be planted, anyway — it will require an area the size of Kathmandu Valley. Nijgad is not just trees, it is a vibrant ecosystem, an important biodiversity hotspot and wildlife corridor in the Tarai Arc Landscape.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba promised at the Climate Summit in Glasgow in November that Nepal would expand its jungle area to 45% by 2030. The current canopy cover is less than 40%, which means not only does the country have to expand its forest, but it will also have to halt further denudation. Nepal also risks losing climate adaptation funding if the project goes ahead. The loss of Nijgad’s forest is irreplaceable.

We understand that no infrastructure is possible without sacrificing nature. But there are ways to ensure a win-win with green growth and climate smart development. If an alternative to Kathmandu airport is really needed, there are viable sites elsewhere: expanding Simara airport without felling so many trees, building the new airport 40km to the east in Sarlahi, where no forest needs to go. 

New airports in Bhairawa and Pokhara can also easily be enlarged to take some of the traffic off Kathmandu. In Kathmandu itself, the ADB project to build a new terminal and extend the taxiway to the end of the runway, and moving STOL flights to Ramechhap, will increase handling capacity in the medium-term.

Few in government are willing to listen to this when green becomes the colour of money, and not of trees.

Read Also: Building Nijgadh, come what may, Aria Shree Parasai

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