Forest for the treesNijgadh Airport, while necessary, should not come at the cost of the environment
As the effects of a changing climate and noxious levels of pollution becoming increasingly more evident, countries across the globe have attempted to pursue a cleaner and more sustainable path to economic growth. The realisation that the environment is as important as development has taken hold, and governments are increasingly unwilling to compromise on the environmental front. Nepal, however, still seems to believe that development must come at any cost.
What is touted to become the biggest airport in South Asia in terms of area—the Nijgadh Airport, if built according to plan—will see 2.4 million trees felled and 1,476 households in the Tangiya Basti settlement resettled. A draft Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report in 2017 revealed that this massive swathe of the jungle would be flattened and scores of people would face eviction in the process of building the megaproject in Nijgadh, Bara. After the EIA was approved by the Ministry of Forest and the Ministry for Environment, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation went ahead with a proposal to cut down 770,000 trees during the first phase.
Although the tourism minister has assured planting 25 saplings for every single tree that is felled, this is a tall promise that the public are rightly skeptical about. This assurance is not only ambitious but near impossible, given that 25 saplings per felled tree would equal 62 million new saplings to be planted. The Nijgadh Airport has thus pitted ecologists against economists, or rather environmentalists against development advocates. Environmentalists are concerned that clearing the last remaining prime forest in the eastern Terai could inflict long-standing harm on the ecosystem.
The Nijgadh Airport has invited plenty criticism from all sides, not just environmentalists but also economists, politicians and geostrategists. Many experts have questioned the rationale behind the airport’s location, its size and the decision to build from scratch instead of upgrading the already existing Simara airport. A second international airport, however, has become a dire necessity for Kathmandu. Tribhuvan International Airport, Nepal’s only international airfield, is under a lot of stress and any problems on its single runway can cause massive delays. If Nepal is serious about inviting in more tourists, especially from neighbouring India and China, it needs to be able to cope with the growing numbers of visitors. A second international airport is a very necessary infrastructure upgrade for Nepal and currently, Nijgadh appears to be the the only real possibility.
That said, environmentalists are right when they lament the widespread destruction that the airport will wreak havoc on the regional ecosystems. Clearing millions of trees will undoubtedly affect the habitats and migratory patterns of wildlife not just in Nepal but also across the border in India. The government needs to find a way to placate both sides. Perhaps it is time to consider that the airport needs not to be so large, especially for a country so small.