Biggest Airport or 2.4 million trees: do you think Nepal made the right choice?

 

The government of Nepal had proposed the construction of the Nijgadh international airport in Madhesh Federal Province, Nepal. The airport which is targeted to be completed by 2025 is estimated to gulp US$5.7 billion. If constructed, it would be the largest airport in South Asia and the fourth largest airport in the world in terms of land area.

 

The top international airport in Nepal, Tribhuvan Internation Airport (TIA) has been reportedly ranked as one of the worst airports in South Asia in terms of security, traffic jams, and facilities. It is estimated that the number of international passengers at TIA will reach 7.29 million by 2028 and the airport cannot handle the proposed increase.

 

This makes important the need for another international airport in Nepal to tackle the growing flow of international passengers. The government after a detailed study of potential areas pointed out that Nijgadh is the best location for the second international airport.

 

The bowl-like shape of Kathamandu where TIA is located which is surrounded by hills makes it difficult to land planes, which has resulted in two major plane crashes claiming 310 and 300 lives respectively. The proposed area has three air entry points from India, Janakpur, Biratnagar, and Bhairawa which are all visible from Njigadh. It is also ~62 km south of Kathamandu; an international airport must be within a one-hour driving distance from a major city. It is situated between two rivers and the cost of transporting construction materials from Birgunji is minimal.

 

 

This urgency prompted the Nepal government to initiate the process for the Nijgadh international airport three decades ago, but no tangible progress has been achieved so far. The government in recent years introduced initiatives to hasten the process, but the entire proposed project has been met with stiff opposition from environmentalists.

 

 

The project has been rejected nationally and internationally over fears of its impact on the environment and biodiversity.

 

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) from the Nepal Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation revealed that 2.4 million trees, both big and small, will have to be felled for the airport project.

This according to environmentalists will prevent 22,500 tons of carbon from being sequestered every year, and also 0.28 million tons of oxygen would be lost annually in the atmosphere. In addition, areas such as Birgunj, Gadhimai, Gaur, and Kalaiye would be left vulnerable to flooding.

 

 

The proposed project area is heavily forested and the forest is the last remaining native hardwood forest in the eastern Terai and is also home to 500 species of bird, 33 species of mammal, 23 endangered flora, and 22 endangered wildlife species.

 

The EIA also reveals potential adverse impacts from the construction and operation of the airport. Construction-related impacts include soil erosion, changes in drainage network and land use, noise, and air pollution; operational impacts include changes in the surface of hydrology and groundwater hydrology, pollution, and changes in micro-climate which will ultimately lead to climate change.

 

Environmentalists filed a petition at the Supreme Court of Nepal seeking judiciary intervention to stop the project. Activists are also urging the government to change the location of the airport to a site where the environmental impact will be minimal. Environmentalists are skeptical of the government’s commitment to replanting trees citing several big projects where the government has failed to replant trees.

 

In reaction to this, the government has proposed a complementary plantation in which about 5 million trees would be planted. This proposal has been faulted by activists because no concrete plans have been put forward for this in terms of land and cost.

 

The government further stated that 45 percent of Nepal is covered by forests which allay environmental concerns.

 

In 2019, the Supreme Court halted the entire process until its latest verdict on May 26 2022 overruling the proposed project in favor of environmentalists and activists. The Court asked the government to find alternatives to the Nijgadh project.

 

 

However, the government of Nepal says it’s taking the Nijgadh airport project forward despite the Supreme Courts’ order to stop it.

 

The government has already spent Rs2billion on the project.

 

The project will help promote Nepal as a transit hub in South Asia and a tourist destination. It would increase economic development; enable direct long-haul connectivity to countries in North America, Europe, and Australia. It would also boost Nepal’s connectivity to the rest of the world.

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