Proposed Nijgadh international airport: Explore the alternatives

Keshav Bhattarai


Keshav Bhattarai

International Civil Aviation Organisation states that about 3.5 billion passengers flew by air in 2015. The number is projected to increase to 6.4 billion by 2030. About 42,000 airplanes would make 4,500 million trips in the Asia Pacific Region and 7,800 million trips around the world by that time.

Seamless connectivity aided by newest technology in bag handling and security screening has become important to facilitate travellers’ voyage. Many major airports are becoming flexible to accommodate business dynamics, but many have reached their limits as well. Globalised business depends on aviation; increasing airport congestion and delay unprecedentedly increase operational costs.

Adding airport facilities is challenging on environmental and financial grounds. Involving multiple stakeholders in decision-making improves airports’ qualities and lessens future conflicts. Airport quality also indicates the status of a country. An airport balanced with open space and unparalleled global shopping facilities having ultra-modern environment augmented by the modern travel technology handles contemporary aviation challenges with least amount of problems.

Nepal needs another international airport (IA) besides Tribhuvan, Pokhara, and Gautam Buddha IA because TIA’s facility is exhausted in serving six million passengers annually through 15 national and 23 foreign airlines. In TIA, air passengers may increase to 12 million by 2030 and 30 million by 2040.

Nepal’s undulated physiography has only 973,921 ha of land (~7 percent of Nepal’s total area) within 3 percent slope suitable for the construction of airports. Only 19.28 percent land is within 3 percent slope in Province 1, 30.87 percent in Province 2, 6.99 percent in Province 3, 3.81 percent in Province 4, 22.96 percent in Province 5, 2.87 percent in Province 6, and 13.27 percent in Province 7.  Nepal has 47 airports connecting 37 out of 77 districts; thirteen in Province 1, three in Province 2, six in Province 3, five in Province 4,  four in Province 5, six in Province 6, and ten in Province 7. Only Provinces 3, 4, and 5 each has one international standard airport that too under construction in Provinces 4 and 5.

Though dense forested area between Bakaha and Pashaha rivers of Bara district was identified in 1995 among other seven alternatives for the construction of Nijgadh International Airport (NIA) to complement the TIA, the NIA proposal remained dormant and other seven alternatives have never been made public until today. Current Government of Nepal (GoN) is committed to build NIA at the cost of US$6.6 billion, largest mega project in [South] Asia, targeting to complete it by December 2025 and dreaming to serve 9.2 million air passengers by 2030 in one of [South] Asia’s hubs.

However, the public is seeking answers as to why over 8,000 ha of the only remnant Charkoshe Jhadi is chosen without revealing its detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports including any agreement made with India to use the latter’s air space. Other questions of location-specific details of planting 25 saplings per tree cut from proposed NIA also remain unanswered.  Equally, unanswered curiosity remains as to why the possible expansion of Simara Airport located just 25 km away cannot be a substitute to the proposed NIA.


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Literature survey suggests a noble airport: where runways are built on land within 30 slope; has minimum environmental impacts; is of manageable size; is located close to existing cities or connected to capital city with good transportation network; with runways not facing immediate mountains, but with good visibility; and is away from international border. Investment decisions on airports need to examine several fundamental trade-offs and possible risks and uncertainties because mega projects once started are impossible to reverse.

Nepali environmentalists are suggesting that the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) makes public the other seven alternatives for discussions. MoCTCA has made many changing statements on NIA; for example, removal of 2.4 million trees to clear 8045.79 ha for runways and urban development, later changed to removal of 770,291 trees from 2,556.2 ha, and yet, another statement of using 1,641.1 ha to silence environmentalists. Amid these controversies, environmentalists are proposing Murtiya in Sarlahi district (MSD) as an alternative for NIA.

Slope factor is essential for the construction of airport because landing on down-slope needs longer runway distance due to thrust vector depending on the weight of an aircraft. Bara has 38.19 percent and Sarlahi has 30.63 percent of the total districts’ land surfaces with 3 percent slope. On 3 percent land surface, Bara has 22.61 percent tropical forests with over 60 percent crown coverage, but Sarlahi has only 5.92 percent forest with less than 20 percent crown coverage. Higher crown cover is good not only for wildlife, but also for the conservation of water in the high solar insolation areas within latitudinal ranges of 26.970-27.020 N in NIA and 26.990-27.980 N in MSD sites. Vegetation coverage makes significant differences in such latitudinal ranges for carbon sequestration and water retention on the ground. Both NIA and MSD have Udothents, Ustorthents, and Haplaquents soils, good for airport construction.

With commitments made in biodiversity conservation (Article 14, Convention on Biological Diversity 1992; Section 9 of Nepal Treaty Act 1990), Nepal is bound to follow conservation rules despite power granted to GoN by Section 68 (Forest Act 1993) to use any parts of forest for nationally prioritised projects.  Forest Act 1995 and Forest Rules and Regulations 1997 (Appendix 4) warn for careful uses of such rights only when no alternatives are found. A rich biodiversity area of proposed NIA receiving up to 217 ml rainfall in 24 hours (July 2002), when converted into concrete floor not only inundates 6,260 ha farmlands of downward community, but also restricts underground water recharge.

The EIA report prepared for NIA admits that deforestation of tropical natural Sal, Tarai-hardwood, and Khair-Sissoo forests would destroy 333 (22 endangered) plant species with the losses of ecological niches for species of 23 mammals, 31 birds, and 10 reptiles.  This conclusion was drawn from a total of 754 samplings (20 x 20 m2 for trees; 5 x 5 m2 for shrubs;  and 1 x 1 m2 for herbs) covering a swath of 7,500 ha. Over 586,001 trees (over 30 cm diameter at breast height-‘dbh’) and 1,864,820 pole-size plants (less 30 dbh) will be removed from NIA proposed site equivalent to US$52.4 million in government royalty, but US$69.16 million in market values.

Environmentalists estimate the annual ecosystem services (carbon sequestration, plant oxygen generation, decelerating water droplet velocities, underground water recharge, and vegetation filter in eutrophication) losses at US$2,000 – US$3,000 million. To compensate the losses, GoN proposes to plant 25 saplings for one tree felled that requires planting of 61,270,525 saplings on 38,294 ha, managing for 5 years at an estimated cost of US$1,398 million and additional US$281.61 million vegetation clearance costs. GoN would save US$1,500 million choosing MSD over NIA with no worry of finding new plantation sites. Also, choosing MSD will have ripple economic effects in interior Tarai area as Growth Pole Theory suggests.

Airports are noisy. A 747 Jet Engine produces an average of 98.4 effective perceived noise in decibels (EPNdB) during take-off and 90.4 EPNdB during landing. Yet, others planes can produce up to 110 EPNdB during take-off with a possible peak off noise of over 140 dB, which can evoke pain, and even burst eardrums, if it exceeds 150 EPNdB. NIA operation can significantly affect wildlife habitats in its vicinity while MSD is free from this problem.  Amid these controversies, there are both voices–“Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) and “Please in My Backyard” (PIMBY) for NIA construction.

Many international airports are efficiently managed on lesser spaces (area hectares) than the proposed NIA areas. For example, Amsterdam—2,787; Bangkok—3,240; Chicago—3,087; Cairo—3,700; Dubai—2,900; Dulles (US)—6,963; Delhi—2,066; Denver—13,570; King Faisal (Saudi Arabia)—77,600; Paris—3,200; and Shanghai—4,000. Mumbai and London’s Gatwick airports handle 50 million passengers within 700 ha; even smaller Singapore airport serves 60 million annual passenger movements efficiently. Almost 3,000 ha available in MSD is sufficient for all purposes.

Proposed NIA is 72 kilometers (45 miles) away from Kathmandu served by two parallel runways fast track expected to serve 15 million passengers annually. MSD will add additional 45 km to NIA distance.

NIA faces Shiwalik—Churia hills within 25 km sky distance in the north, but these mountains are 40 km away from MSD. Nearby mountains are dangerous for aviation because on 31 July 1992, Thai Airways struck Ghoptebhir and on September 28, Pakistan Airline struck Bhattedanda while landing at TIA. Since NIA is close to dense vegetation and Birgunj Industrial hub, fog formation due to evapotranspiration and industrial smoulder would make NIA less visible than MSD when Tarai experiences cold wave with no westerly winter air movement.

Airlines pay fee to fly over foreign skies based on aircraft weight, and distance travelled over terrestrial (high cost) and ocean (less cost) skies. NIA is 38 km away from India and MSD 45 km. Constructing an international airport at MSD would avoid the problems of catching another flight level if  an airplane needs hovering over sky space within 20 nautical miles from the airport because the proposed site of MSD is located farther away from India than NIA.

The current Tourism Minister, an author of “The Road to Prosperity” book had cautioned governments in his book not to duplicate development work citing examples of “two parallel routes” (p. 76-77)—the Nijgadh-Kathmandu Fast Track and Hetauda-Kathmandu Tunnel, will apply the same standard in the construction of NIA while also taking into account several environmental factors including nearby Simara airport.  Also, he would first reveal seven alternatives and location-specific details to replace 1:25 samplings before implementing this project.

The writer is a Professor of Geography at University of Central Missouri, USA.

Published on 24 September 2018