Building Nijgad, come what may

The Nijgad Airport construction site. Pic: Kiran Nepal

As the date for a final Supreme Court ruling on the proposed new international airport in Nijgad approaches, uncertainty once more shrouds the $3.5 billion project. Supporters call the airport 60km south of Kathmandu as a necessary infrastructure investment for the country’s economic growth, while opponents say it is an expensive and an ecologically disastrous white elephant

On 26 May, the Supreme Court is slated to give a final verdict on a public interest litigation citing irreversible environmental damage, since it will mean felling 40sq km of primary tropical forest.  

A 2010 feasibility study by Korean consultants Landmark Worldwide proposed a 3-phase construction with a single 4,000m runway for 15 million passengers per year at a cost of $650 million in the first phase to be completed in 4 years. By the third phase, there would be four runways for 67 million passengers a year at a cost of $6.7 billion. It will take another ten years for the final completion.

Successive governments, including those led by parties in the current coalition as well as the opposition, have all enthusiastically backed Nijgad, saying it is important for Nepal’s future.

Read also: Does Nepal need a 4th international airport? Om Astha Rai

“Kathmandu airport was built for 9.2 million passengers a year, and it has already exceeded that,” says Pradeep Adhikari, Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN). “Annual international passenger growth is 9-12% and domestic flights have grown by 33% in the past year. Tourism was growing at 10% a year pre-pandemic, and will revive,” he added.

With Kathmandu projected to handle 25 million passengers per year by 2040, Pokhara and Bhairawa just do not have the capacity to reduce that pressure.

“We have reached the limit of air space capacity, terminal capacity and runway capacity,” Adhikari explains.

However, it is not just environmentalists who question the rationale for Nijgad. They say the airport is designed for an obsolete ‘hub-and-spoke’ model, whereas global aviation has moved to point-to-point destinations with new generation of aircraft that can circumnavigate the globe with just one stop.

They also say that with the impact of the pandemic and spreading awareness about the climate crisis, there is already a slowdown in civil aviation growth in parts of the world, and that the age of mega-airports is over. Besides, can Nepal afford the debt financing for such a mammoth undertaking?

The cleared forest for the proposed Nijgad airport can already be seen in satellite images. It is 60km from Kathmandu, and will be a 1-hour drive away once the Kathmandu-Tarai Fastrack is completed.

The writ petition at the Supreme Court faults a 2018 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for downplaying the impact on biodiversity and carbon sequestration potential of the Nijgad jungle – the last remnant of the once extensive Char Kose Jhari that stretched across the central Tarai.

Nepali Times received a copy of the EIA report, and found that it actually copy-pasted from a hydropower project in the mountains. It did not even delete technical references to ‘headwork’ and ‘powerhouse’. It cites Nijgad as being the habitat of the ghoral, an antelope-like mammal found only in the Himalaya.

One of the other concerns is noise pollution from heavy jets on the nearby Parsa National Park, but the EIA misses the point. Saying instead that noise will be mitigated by using ‘less dynamite’. Again, this seems to be from an EIA of a hydropower project. 

The EIA was prepared by the firm GEOCE Consultants, whose area of expertise is hydropower. The EIA also overestimates passenger handling capacity of 60 million per year, lacks environmental and ecological assessment of the proposed ‘aeropolis’, quarry sites, and infrastructure in the construction and operation phases.

In its final phase, the airport  would ultimately require 8,046 hectares of which nearly 95% is heavily forested at present. This has led critics to call Nijgad a “logging concession” rather than an international airport project.

Destruction of the Nijgad forest could impact on ground water recharge and river flow, affecting irrigation and agriculture production downstream in the fertile Tarai plains.

It would also remove the last remaining wildlife corridor for migration between the Tarai jungles and the Siwalik and Mahabharat ranges to the north.

Read also: Nepal must save Nijgad Forest to receive climate funds, Kashish Das Shrestha

Since the project area is a part of the Parsa National Park buffer area and lies in the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL), environmentalists say that the EIA should have analysed the impact of the project on biodiversity and wildlife much more carefully. 

A 1994 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) showed the Nijgad forest to be ecologically fragile, rich in biodiversity and wildlife movement routes.  

The forest has Khair, Sissoo, Sal and Satisal trees, some of which  cannot be logged and exported by law according to the revised forest rules of 2001.

Hardwood tropical forests with their canopy cover and undergrowth are much more effective at carbon sequesteration, and experts have calculated that felling the Nijgad jungle would prevent 22,500 tonnes of carbon from being absorbed from the atmosphere annually.

Parts of the Nijgad jungle are community forests, or locally protected, and have small seasonal streams and natural drainage systems forming a ‘paini’ network that villagers traditionally use for wells, irrigation and drinking.

The EIA does not have a valuation of ‘ecosystem services’ and livelihood benefits for the 37,000 households that depend on the forest for firewood, fodder and water. If the forest is replaced by an airport, it could put further pressure on the nearby national park and other protected areas.

The EIA mentions that the government will compensate local communities for loss of livelihood, and initiate a major reforestation drive to replace the trees. But it does not mention where and how many trees will be planted. Nepal’s record for compensation and replanting in other infrastructure projects is poor.

International operations at the new Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara Airport will be complicated because India has not allowed two-way traffic on air routes like L626, G345 and R344 (below left).

CAAN’s Adhikari argues that no development project anywhere in the world comes with zero environmental cost.

“The idea is to mitigate the impact and strictly follow  guidelines for replanting trees that are lost,” he says.  

But such massive reforestation is an ambitious goal, and difficult with Sal saplings that nurseries find hard to grow. It takes decades to build species diversity and fully functioning forest ecosystems, and they still cannot replace native forests. Environmentalists say the EIA also does not look at alternative sites for the airport that would be less damaging.

Nepal has increased forest cover in the past years, but sub-tropical and tropical forests are declining even as the country’s carbon footprint grows. At COP26 in Glasgow last year, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba set a target for Nepal to increase its forest area to 45% by 2030, and opponents of the project say Nijgad would be a step backward.

The Nijgad EIA was submitted in March 2018, and hurriedly approved within two months by the Ministry of Forests and Environment. Critics say it is wrong for both the presenter of the EIA and the approver being government agencies. In fact, the last sentence of the EIA even says Prime Minister K P Oli  backed the project and wanted it to be started ‘ASAP’.

“We have to look at 20 years from now,” says Adhikari of CAAN. “There is going to be big tourism growth, Nepalis will be traveling more, and we will have outgrown Kathmandu, Pokhara and Bhairawa. Nepal needs a primary international airport in the coming decades.” 

Even before the EIA approval, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation had already contracted the Nepal Army to start clearing trees at the Nijgad site. At present 60% of land acquisition has been completed, tree felling has begun, and work has started on civil works and river training.

Politically motivated environmental assessments are common in developing countries like Nepal, and opponents say the Nijgad EIA is one such.  

Read more: Megalomania + Kleptomania, Editorial

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