The project has ignored the Forest Act, which mandates felling only for a national priority project for which there are no alternatives, and if there is no adverse impact on the environment and wildlife. Developers also need to submit detailed project report before an EIA, but this was never done.
The EIA is actually based on a pre-feasibility study conducted over two decades ago, rendering it obsolete. There is evidence that entire paragraphs of the EIA have been plagiarised from the Upper Tama Kosi Hydropower report, and mentions plant and animal species found at high altitudes, and not in the Tarai.
The EIA does admit that the airport at Nijgad will ‘cause an imbalance’ in biodiversity, but does not mention any mitigation measures. In fact, the airport will destroy 80sq km of the last remaining primary forest in the eastern Tarai, home to over 500 plants, birds and animal species, many of them endangered.
Clearing the forest will destroy a crucial migration corridor for endangered wild elephants and tigers, deplete the buffer zone of the Parsa Wildlife Reserve, and remove vegetation that recharges groundwater for farms in the Tarai and India. The sound pollution from aircraft will also disturb wildlife in nearby sanctuaries.
None of this is discussed in any great detail in the EIA. Nor is the fact that two rivulets that flow across the project area become raging torrents in the monsoon. Deforestation and sand and boulder extraction upstream have made the floods worse every year.
“The site chosen for the airport has seen a change in weather patterns with tornados, cloudbursts and floods, and the Nijgad project is right in the middle of it all,” says activist Shristi Singh Shrestha.
The COVID-19 pandemic has once again reinforced the crucial relationship between the loss of biodiversity, new emerging diseases and the climate emergency. A mega project like Nijgad airport would therefore raise even more questions about adverse environment impact.
Elsewhere in the world, large airport expansion projects have been scrapped due to their ecological costs. In fact, questions were raised in the Swiss parliament after Zurich Airport International AG was shortlisted for developing and operating Nijgad.
Sanjay Adhikari who has minutely studied the EIA compares Nijgad airport to Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, which has earned the moniker ‘world’s emptiest airport’. The Chinese-built airport was also supposed to be a hub for cargo and tourism, and uplift Sri Lanka’s economy. But airlines have ignored the airport 200km south of Colombo.
“From the perspective of climate justice, there are now serious doubts if European countries would allow their aircraft to fly into Nijgad knowing its environmental cost,” says Shrestha.
In Nijgad, real estate speculators and squatters have already started clearing the forests in anticipation of the project going through, giving an indication of what the future holds in store for the region. Critics say the government does not care if the airport is feasible, they are only interested in profiting off logging concessions and construction contracts.
The Nijgad International Airport’s proposed two runways will accommodate up to 60 million passengers annually – six times more than Kathmandu airport. The airport is based on the hub concept from 20 years ago so airlines can use it as a transit point for passengers moving from various parts of Asia to the rest of the world.
Aviation experts say the hub model is now obsolete and replaced by the point-to-point concept because modern airliners can fly non-stop for 18-20 hours, unlike two decades ago when they needed refuelling stopovers.
The pre-feasibility and EIA make a case for Nijgad because both have said Pokhara and Bhairawa were not suitable as international airports. However, two new international airports are now under construction in both locations.
Analysts like Arjyal say global aviation will take years to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. But even before the pandemic, flight shaming was already starting to affect the airline business, which raises serious questions about whether Nepal should gamble on such an expensive airport project.
Says advocate Sanjay Adhikari: “This airport is not being built out of necessity, and if it goes ahead despite all these issues, Nijgad will not only destroy the environment but push future generations of Nepalis into debt. The COVID-19 crisis is a chance for us to pull out of this wasteful project now.”