Of planes and pachydermsThe proposed Nijgadh Airport infuriated development activists and environmental activists
The recently approved Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) for the proposed Nijgadh International Airport has led to a furor among development activists and environmental activists. Each group blames the other of working to undermine the national interest. At this point of time, such accusations don’t help. The situation demands healthy dialogue so environmental concerns can be reconciled with development.
Forest for the trees
The Ministry of Forest and Environment approved the EIA, which allows the chopping down of 2.4 million trees from nearly 80 sq km of forest. Development activists argue that, in a country with millions of hectares (6.61 million ha., to be precise) of forest, chopping down a mere 2.4 million trees would not have significant impacts, especially as the project could be a turning point for the national economy. Environmental and conservation activists, on the other hand, argue that this forest area is a migration corridor for tigers and elephants. Destroying these prime forests could have significant impacts on wildlife that they house.
Elephants require a large area for foraging, and so, migrate from place to place. Each year, elephants from West Bengal in India migrate to central Nepal. They enter into Jhapa district and travel all the way to Parsa National Park. The forest area to be cleared is reported to be one of the few remaining parts of the infamous char koshe jhadi and the historical migration route of elephants.
Eastern Nepal is testament to what can happen when the migration routes of elephants are disturbed. According to a study conducted by Ramesh Shrestha and Dilli Prasad Koirala in 2013, in the period between 1987 and 2012, a total of 40 people were killed by elephants in five eastern districts, namely Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Saptari and Udayapur, with an average of two deaths per year. Beside these fatalities, many more are injured and elephants damage crops worth millions of rupees. But elephants alone are not to blame. The mistake was in resettling the population of the mid-hills in the Terai. At that point of time, little was known about the behaviour of elephants. Forests were cleared haphazardly and migration corridors interrupted to establish settlements. The people of eastern Nepal continue to suffer from mistakes made nearly 70 years earlier. We can only assume that the generations hence will continue to face problems.
While there isn’t any doubt that we need an alternative international airport, we need to consider a few important factors.
First, the size of the proposed airport. When the airport was first proposed, there was only one international airport in Nepal. Now, two regional airports (Pokhara and Gautam Buddha in Bhairahawa) are under construction, which will reduce air traffic from other regional international airports.
Second, Nepal needs to invest nearly Rs 670 billion, which is nearly half of the current budget of the country. When it comes to development projects in Nepal, hardly any are completed within the projected budget. It is likely that the proposed budget will expand. This project might thus undermine our ability to invest in other priority sectors, including health, education, etc.
Third, on the basis of regional geopolitics, aviation experts claim that the chances of Nijgadh becoming a hub destination are low. They suggest changes in the size and scale of the proposed airport, instead of being overambitious.
Fourth, even if all assumptions hold true, the airport will no doubt face conflicts with elephants attempting to continue to use their historical migration corridor. This has potential to take the lives of many people and destroy much property while also posing threats to the elephants themselves. This is an ethical quandary that must be resolved.
The elephant in the room
Nepal is one of 13 countries where Asian elephants (Elephus maximus) are found. The population of wild elephants in Nepal is supposed to be in the range of 107 to 145, distributed across four sub-populations. Each sub-population is small to avoid inbreeding depression. Migration is therefore vital to avoid inbreeding and ultimately, to ensure the adaptive capacity of elephants essential for their conservation. Given this fact, the preservation of the elephants’ migration route is essential. Elephants, including other species, are integral parts of the ecosystem. Effects to one part of the ecosystem can have cascading effects on other entities and ultimately affects the balance of the ecosystem.
August 12 was World Elephant Day, a day marked to raise awareness about the conservation of elephants. Each year, it is not only humans that lose their lives in human-elephant conflicts; elephants too perish. The proposed Nijgadh airport has the possibility of intensifying this kind of conflict. It could be wise to restructure or even relocate the airport, considering the physical, social and economic contexts.
Aryal is a teaching assistant at the Department of Environmental Science, Tri-Chandra Multiple Campus