Controversial proposed Nijgadh International Airport: Twisted scientific facts

Keshav Bhattarai


Writer Bhattarai

There have been many controversial debates on the construction of the proposed Nijgadh International Airport (NIA). The controversies started because of the faulty Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) report and repeated unsubstantiated statements from politicians and government authorities while twisting scientific facts. The debates however have been useful to clear-up many of the past ambiguities.

For example, the claim that the proposed NIA is in the center for any plane entering into Nepal’s territory either from the east or west after leaving the Indian sky territories while descending from 29,000 ft. height. The discussion has clearly revealed that the NIA is not located at the center (half way) of Nepal (85.020 E longitude), but Gautam Buddha Int. Airport is (83.50 E longitude) because of Nepal’s east west expansion of 80 – 880 E longitude.

Likewise, the ambiguity that Nepal will become Asia’s aviation hub has been refuted with the arguments of advanced aviation technology that has enabled modern planes to fly 17-20 hours non-stop. It is unlikely that long-distance hauling of large planes would make NIA as their hub because of the hassles of bag transfers and transitional waits. Also, questions are raised if NIA can become an Asian aviation hub because Nepal’s national flag bearer plane has not received clearances to fly to European countries and Nepal Airline Corporation (NAC) has been plagued by repeated corruption scandals. NAC needs to do more to establish reputations and make NIA as a hub like other airlines such as Delta Airlines in the USA, Singapore Airlines in Singapore, Thai Airways in Bangkok, Garuda Airways in Jakarta, and Qantas Airways in Australia.

Many authors have made it clear that the proposed NIA is the biodiversity hotspot, and its destruction will impact on the habitats of many wildlife including the habitats of an Asiatic elephant.

Many authors have made it clear that the proposed NIA is the biodiversity hotspot, and its destruction will impact on the habitats of many wildlife including the habitats of an Asiatic elephant. Many have equated the proposed NIA with the Rajapaksha Int. Airport of Sri Lanka that destroyed the once rich biodiversity hot spot for elephants, but has become defunct recently. Last, but not least about the different sizes of the airports offering efficient services to a large number of aviation passengers such as the Heathrow in London, O’Hare in Chicago, and Singapore are already discussed refuting the needs for 8,000 ha area by clearing the only remaining section of the Charkoshe Jhadi (dense forest) of Nepal.

Yet, some political bickering is going on. Nepal cannot wait for a long-time embroiled around these controversies as a second International Airport is badly needed in view of the increasing traffic congestions at the only one seismically sensitive Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) airport. Since Nepal dreams to bring over 20 million tourists annually to support its remittance supported tepid economy through the foreign exchanges earnings from tourism, providing facilities to a large air carrier has become essential. The current 2/3 majority government is trying to implement its bold decision to have NIA built irrespective of the arguments presented by environmentalists because it wants to expedite Nepal’s development without much delay.

The GoN considers NIA will become a stepping-stone to flourish all round developments, and even to graduate to the status of a developing country. Environmentalists are arguing in favor of forest and biodiversity conservation and are lobbying against the construction of NIA but to construct an airport at Murtiya of the Sarlahi district. Arguments that are more logical debates are needed to reach to the final conclusion so that Nepal can achieve her set development goals, “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali” and Nepal will have a second International Airport to supplement the TIA.

In this article, I am not repeating already discussed issues. Hoping to facilitate to reach to a concluding decision to build a second international airport, I would like to discuss some of the ongoing issues. The first debate revolves around the impact of NIA on the hydrology to the downstream communities. I present the land use profile and water table of the Bara district. I have acquired the hydrological information from: a) the World Bank funded Tarai Community Forestry Project where I worked from 1985 to 1989; b) my Ph. D. research on the land use dynamics of the Bara district; and c) my ongoing environmental research in Nepal. To avoid long write-up, I present a graphic to depict the ground reality regarding the hydrological issues.


Land profile, water tables, and flow directions of the proposed NIA construction site

Another question is who did the inventory of 2.4 million trees. Records suggest that the tree samplings and estimations were done by a group of scientists affiliated with the Forest Resource Assessment of the GoN (FRA July 2014 Report, pp. 1-36) following the internationally accepted standard protocol. Satellite imagery based inventory done before 2000 revealed that the earth has 400 billion trees. However, between 2003 and 2012, a detailed inventory was done by combining satellite imagery with the ground samplings of 430,000 ha forest patches scattered all over the world. This combined inventory revealed that in fact there are 3 trillion trees on the earth. Similar standard practices were followed to count 2.4 million trees of the Bara district.

Another ongoing debate is since Nepal has over 44 percent forest cover, just cutting down 8,000 hectares of the Bara forest will have no negative environmental impacts. Trees on the temperate climate has different biogeochemical cycling activities than a tree in the tropic and subtropics.  Simply planting trees or increasing the areas under forest everywhere will not necessarily achieve the same goal. For example, the global forest areas have been expanded by 10 percent since the 1750s. In this process many bare areas were afforested and various broad leaved trees were replaced by commercially valuable tree species such as eucalyptus, coniferous, birch, and others. In doing so, it has resulted in a net release of carbon to the atmosphere and the surface temperature has increased by 0.12° C.

Decades long research has clearly revealed that redwood and Sal trees can store carbon for more than 2,000 years. Redwood, Sal, Saj, Khair trees have a thick xylem (black hard cambium core, the storage of carbon that makes these timber durable even under abnormal weather conditions), which cannot be found in coniferous, Uttis, Chilaune, and many other trees that are found in the higher elevations of Nepal. In Europe, from 1750 to 1850, roughly 190,000 km2 of Europe’s forest were cut down for fuel and for agriculture, but forests rebounded later on more than twice the original area. Many deciduous trees were replaced by fast-growing conifers and boreal forest species such as larches, spruces, birches, aspens, firs and pines. Unfortunately, this shift in vegetation composition hold 3.1 billion tons less carbon than they did in the 1750s. The increase in the land coverage by coniferous trees or other trees with lanceolate leaves such as Eucalyptus absorb more sunlight than from the deciduous trees.

That means replacing the areas of tropical or subtropical broadleaved trees with the coniferous trees means releasing more heat into the atmosphere. This is the reason why despite the presence of 750 billion trees with the thickest stem densities in the boreal forests of North America, Scandinavia and Russia, global temperature is rising because these tightly packed skinny 750 billion trees (24 percent global total) absorb less carbon than the tropical and subtropical forests.  Serious concerns are raised when fire has engulfed the in Amazonian tropical forests because these tropical trees generate 25 percent of the global oxygen.

Nepal’s tropical and subtropical forest areas have decreased from 2,561 km2 in 1980 to 2,249 km2 in 2010, and a further decrease in the Baras’ forest means we are releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than in the 1980s.

Nepal’s tropical and subtropical forest areas have decreased from 2,561 km2 in 1980 to 2,249 km2 in 2010, and a further decrease in the Baras’ forest means we are releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than in the 1980s, which will have direct impact on the northern glaciers. Concerned with this sensitive situation, the GoN aims to plant 25 trees per one of the 2.5 million trees felled from 8,000 ha areas of the Bara forest. This is a fantastic idea because it would add 62.5 million trees on 39,063 ha, assuming 1,600 trees per hectare. An analysis of satellite imaginary taken in 2019 followed by ground visitations to some areas reveals only a few land areas available in the tropical and subtropical regions where plantation may be possible. However, planting 62.5 million trees is beyond the bitter reality.

Yet, another ambiguity is that on the proposed NIA site there are only Pothra-Pothris of Sal and other species (poles and samplings) as big trees were already felled during the British Colonial period to construct railway sleepers in India. Thus, felling of such pothras-pothris will have no environmental impacts. This is true that many of the timber stands were felled earlier except for a few mother seed trees; for example, the Bhim Sakhuwa tree nearby Kolbi and many other old Sal and Saj trees are still standing on the Bara forest. Decades long research has revealed that the juvenile vegetation (Pothra-Pothris) in the tropics and subtropics absorb carbon at a rapid rate than old trees do, but the pothras-pothris at the high-latitude forests consume very little of the atmospheric carbon.


If tropical and subtropical forests are managed well, Earth’s forests could take up around half of the carbon emitted by human activities, which would substantially slow down global warming. The old Sal trees are not putting any incremental growth; they are dying out and they now spew out more carbon than they actually conserve. Repeated burning of these forest releases carbon that are stored in their trunks, branches and leaves into the atmosphere. At the global scale such old trees generate approximately 425 million tons of carbon annually, equivalent to roughly 5 percent of the globe’s annual fossil-fuel emissions. Presently, Nepal imports a large volume of timber by paying hard-earned foreign exchange currencies.

A scientific management of tropical and subtropical forests without disturbing the juvenile forest growth would be a win-win situation in mitigating the global climate change as these juvenile forest growths suck up carbon dioxide from the air and help regulate the earth climate. Utilizing the old stuck for timber production and managing juvenile forest growths (pothras-pothris) can collectively hold around 650 billion tons of carbon at the global scale in an undisturbed ecosystem. However, once disturbed, these ecosystems lose carbon through respiration, death and decay. The juvenile forest growths would help to lower the level of level of CO2 which has increased to 550 parts per million recently. This level is way beyond the limit the World Health Organization recommendation for a healthy living.

Of the 7.7 billion total global population, almost 11 percent is vulnerable to climate change mainly due to droughts, floods, heat waves, famine, and extreme weather events, and Nepal falls within the most climate sensitive region by virtue of its location between the rapidly growing economies of the north and south. Land degradation and overexploitation of limited tropical forest resources, and repeated fire on the remaining forests as the dry season starts, release of CO2 gases into the atmosphere. Additionally, at global scale, vehicular emissions is contributing over 11 percent of the emissions, and aviation contributes 2 percent. These activities have made recent years the hottest in the past 3 million years raising the average temperature 1.780 F (~0.990 C) hotter than the mid-20th century’s average. Clearing tropical forests means, we are creating hotter environment on the earth.

Research have justified that conserving the tropical forest would help stabilize or reduce Nepal’s contributions to the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which at present stands at 0.027 percent. A destruction of the tropical juvenile forest will accelerate the  rate of temperature at higher elevation which at present is 0.060 ± 0.0150 C year-1  and is predicted to increase up to 4.8° C by 2050 (range of 3.5–6.2 °C). However, proper management of the tropical and subtropical juvenile forests could bring down the temperature to 3.50 C in 2100. Nepal is an agricultural country with 2/3rd of the population engaged on it for livelihood. Recent studies have predicted that agriculture contributes almost 11.2 percent of the global GHG emissions.

Nepal cannot afford to curtail agricultural activities just to reduce GHG emissions. It is essential to sustain or increase agriculture to feed the Nepali population. According to the recent estimates, over 8 million Nepali are living in various countries around the world for remittance purposes. Bringing this population back home would require more agricultural production. That means we are emitting more GHG emissions from agriculture. One of the solutions could be to wisely conserve the existing juvenile forests to strengthen the farm-forestry linkages to cool the planet.

The GoN has set various ambitious plans under the overarching goal of “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali.” Achieving the goals through sustainable approach would be more meaningful and less controversial.

The GoN has set various ambitious plans under the overarching goal of “Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali.” Achieving the goals through sustainable approach would be more meaningful and less controversial. Since the proposed NIA construction has been debated with several controversies, it would be best if the GoN answers issues such as: a) the likelihood impacts of the NIA construction on the downstream hydrology; b) how much carbon would be released if 2.4 million pothras-pothris of tropical forests are removed; c) what would be the possible human wild-life conflicts after the destruction of biodiversity hotspots of the Bara district; d) since the proposed NIA site is 20-26 miles north from the Indian border whether or not the Indian Government will object the use of Indian sky by the Nepali plane before achieving the 29,000 ft. height; and e) the differences between the proposed NIA and the Gautam Buddha Airport is terms of using the Indian sky by Nepali airplanes since both of them are close to the Indian border. If the GoN clarifies these issues to the public, the NIA construction project would go very smoothly without any controversies. It would not require bringing 1-2 million people for a show off strength at the time of laying the foundation stone for the NIA.

One of the biggest contributions of the GoN would be to help develop carbon sequestration models for various geographic regions where a variety of vegetation grows. This can be done by involving various educational institutions. Involving educational institutions in the development of carbon sequestration models will be a win-win situation because this step will show how serious the GoN is in the protection of environment. This modeling technique would also empower the local forest user groups to claim for the carbon credits with the government. Monitoring carbon sequestration through the modeling techniques would help in protecting the Nepali mountain glaciers from the excess of carbon-led heating of the atmosphere.

The writer is a professor of geography at the University of Central Missouri, US.

Published on 8 September 2019