Is the government going to fell close to 2,5 million trees – or 8,045 hectares of natural forest – to clear the ground for a fourth international airport in Nepal? So far, the Oli-led government appears serious about its plans. It has dusted off an old project idea: “Nijgadh International Airport” – to alleviate airport congestion at Tribhuvan International Airport.
Nijgadh airport will have the biggest capacity of all future international airports in the country. Currently under construction, Gautam Buddha International Airport will have a capacity to handle 9 million passengers a year; Pokhara International Airport 1 million; while Nijgadh International Airport will have a capacity of 15 million passengers a year!
The upstart of the Nijgadh airport project has alarmed environmentalists. The location is covered by original salwood forest now set to be cleared, and the forest is directly connected with adjacent Parsa National Park. It’s not only an extremely valuable habitat with a rich bio-diversity but also a corridor for rare animals like tiger and wild elephant!
Is the loss of such natural forest a price worth paying for a fourth international airport? Well, few will question the need for greater international airport capacity in Nepal. Congestion at Tribhuvan International Airport is a daily experience, just as the number of tourists is expected to rise. But is it necessary to build an international airport as big as Nijgadh?!
The prospect of losing the forest at Nijgadh justifies a closer look at the actual need. Building the airport at Nijgadh (15 million passengers) in addition to Gautam Buddha International Airport (9 million) and Pokhara International Airport (1 million passengers) would only make sense if passenger numbers are indeed set to climb to that high level in future.
Passenger numbers at TIA: set to skyrocket?
Growing passenger numbers at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) are often making headlines in the national news. Except for a temporary dip in 2015 as a result of the Gorkha Earthquake, the number of passengers going through TIA – including both arrivals and departures – has indeed increased from just 1,9 million in 2000 to over 6,2 million in 2017!
Nijgadh is going to be an international airport. So, it’s relevant to distinguish between TIA’s international and domestic terminal. But on both counts 2017 was a record year with 3,88 million international passengers and 2,39 million domestic passengers. In 2000, the respective numbers were a mere 1,1 million and 850,000 passengers, respectively.
How many of the 3,88 million international passengers, though, were tourists? First of all, the 3,88 million refer not to “persons” but to the number of “international arrivals and departures”. In 2017, TIA had around 1,800,000 international arrivals – and 2,100,000 departures – so in sum: not more than around 1,8 million people landed at TIA from abroad.
Out of those 1,8 million international arrivals at TIA, how many were tourists? By “tourist” is meant most categories of foreign visitors whose “purpose of visit” includes holiday, business, official visit, pilgrimage, conference or trekking and mountaineering. The total number of tourists in 2017 was 940,218 out of which a mere 760,577 arrived by air, at TIA.
If just 760.577 out of 1,8 million international arrivals at TIA were tourists – people visiting on holiday, business, official purpose or otherwise – who were the remaining one million arrivals or so? The large number of migrant workers flying in and out of Nepal every year suggests that migrant workers returning to Nepal would make up a big chunk of them.
From 2013 to 2017, close to 2 million Nepalis received labour permits to go abroad as migrant workers. As working contracts end, some renew their contracts while others return to Nepal. The exact number of migrant workers arriving at TIA is not readily available. But it’s clear that they and other Nepalis make up over half of all international arrivals!
Might the number of migrant workers decrease in future? In fact, it has already, since 2015. The steep increase over the past decade might pick up again and migrant workers put ever more pressure on TIA’s capacity. But should the downward trend continue, only a rise in tourism could justify a new airport with a 15 million passenger capacity!
Tourism: a slow upward trend
Only around 760,500 tourist arrivals by air last year would amount to roughly 1,5 million international arrivals and departures at TIA on account of tourism. Can tourism, then, justify building a new international airport with a capacity of 15 million passengers?! True enough, while there is a long way to 15 million passengers, numbers are on the up.
In 1998 – that’s twenty years ago – 398,008 tourists arrived by air to Nepal. That’s just half of the number today. But that’s an increase over a 20 years period, and so, the annual increase in number of tourists has been just 18,000 arrivals a year on average! If that trend continues, the climb to the 15 million passengers mark will take a long time indeed.
Prime minister Oli is nevertheless optimistic. The government aims to attract 2 million tourists in 2020 which is official “tourism year” in Nepal. To reach this goal, though, will require an incredible boost in tourism. Moreover, even if 2 million tourists do visit, not all of them will arrive by air and the 15 million passengers mark still lie very far ahead.
Indeed, where would the spike in tourism come from? India was always the largest market for tourism to Nepal, and the trend is positive. But even when viewed over three decades or so, it’s a slow increase. The total number of Indian tourists in 2017 was 160,832 as against 106,574 in 1992, and the peak was in 2013 with just 180,974 Indian tourists!
The importance of China has grown. The increase is even quite steep when viewed over the last decade. The total number of Chinese tourists – counting both air and land arrivals – jumped from just over 35,000 tourists in 2009 to almost 105,000 in 2017, a three-fold increase. Counting only arrivals by air, though, the number in 2017 is 81,008.
The Oli government’s goal is to attract 250,000 tourists from India and China, respectively, in 2020. The plan is to focus Nepal’s marketing campaigns on the two big neighbours, says Krishna Prasad Devkota, secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, as “there is still huge scope of more tourist arrivals from these two neighbours”.
India and China is not all. The old source markets of U.S.A and the U.K. are also showing increases. American tourist numbers went up from just above 30,000 in 2008 to just below 79,200 tourists in 2017, while British tourist numbers increased from 33,600 to 51,000 tourists. But Australia is the only other, major source market showing a similar trend.
Tourism from Australia increased from around 13,850 in 2008 to 33,370 in 2017. Looking at the countries next in importance – Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Spain – on the other hand, the increase is slow. Tourism numbers from these countries actually decreased before the earthquake and have barely recovered to their peak level in 2013-14.
Can tourism numbers, then, justify building an airport for 15 million passengers? Well, South Korea has opened up as a promising new source market with around 34,000 tourists in 2017. Myanmar is a second newcomer of some volume. But would it not take a lot more tourist arrivals than the current 7-800,000 a year to justify building Nijgadh airport?
TIA International: a struggling airport
TIA faces serious capacity issues and so it could appear critical that a bigger one is build as soon as possible. Indeed, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) gave funding for a major capacity enhancement project of TIA back in 2009 as it was clear already back then that both the international and domestic terminals would need a major overhaul to keep up.
But the ADB supported project was never implemented. The government awarded the project to contractors several times yet little work was done. Every time, the contractor postponed the work and ultimately ran away, most recently in 2018. So, barely no improvement has been done neither to the terminals, nor to the runway and other outside facilities.
What causes the capacity issues at TIA more exactly?
First off, it’s a difficult airport to fly into, and these difficulties can cause delays. The proximity to mountains limits the approach ways and rules out the use of instrument landing otherwise guiding planes down on auto pilot. But around the world, there are other airports facing similar difficulties where there are nowhere near the same capacity issues.
A more critical cause is perhaps the number of domestic flights versus international flights at TIA. On average, three domestic planes fly for every international plane, all using the same airspace, and in 2017 take offs and landings reached 93,097 for domestic planes as against 33,362 for international planes. Domestic traffic is growing faster, too!
The many domestic flights are an issue as they are delayed and cancelled far more frequently than international flights. In 2011 and 2014 – two years for which data is available – 37 and 36 percent of all domestic flights were cancelled, respectively, as against only 10 and 6 percent of all international flights. Domestic flights, then, are far less predictable!
The disruptions in the domestic flight schedule cause delays at TIA international as well because take offs and landings are put on hold to make way for domestic planes on a changed timing. The Lukla plane to the Everest region is known as the worst case as many flights a day and very unstable weather conditions in the mountains cause many delays.
Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister, Rabindra Adhikari, a stern advocate of Nijgadh airport, views domestic traffic at TIA as a major issue indeed. It’s so massive, he asserts, that the best solution would be to scrap the domestic terminal at TIA and build a new domestic airport in Kavre just east of Kathmandu. That would reduce traffic at TIA “by 31 percent”!
If a new domestic airport in Kavre could reduce passenger numbers at TIA by almost one third, could it also not solve the capacity issues at TIA for at least some years to come? Well, Minister Adhikari does not view the answer to this question as an “either, or” but favours both solutions at the same time. True enough, domestic traffic is not all.
Add to this a lack of parking bays for planes, only one taxiway to the runway, and just seven aging fuel trucks – while double that number is needed – and the causes of delays both at TIA domestic and international are many, leaving planes to circle on hold or waiting on the ground for hours as well as creating congestion inside both terminals.
It does not help that international flights are concentrated within just five-six hours on most days instead of a wider distribution. On average, around 70 percent of all international take-offs and landings happen between 12:00 and 17:00! This schedule puts extra pressure on everything from air control and refueling to check-in and luggage handling.
The $92 million ADB-supported Air Transport Capacity Enhancement Project (ATCEP) was meant to extend the runway, add two extra taxiways, build a new international terminal and shift the old one to domestic use, and expand parking bays for planes. There would be upgraded baggage handling, too. It would have increased TIA’s capacity to 6 million.
In a recent statement, Sanjiv Gautam, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), said that now the ADB project, already put in the pipeline back in 2009, will finally be implemented. It’s not least the building of a new international terminal, shifting the old terminal to domestic use, that’s expected to ease the capacity overload at TIA.
“It’s the ultimate expansion of TIA,” adds Sanjiv Gautam.
But if TIA is indeed going to be expanded, its capacity will increase. Gautam Buddha International Airport is under construction with another 9 million passengers, Pokhara Airport is underway with a capacity of 1 million. That’s a capacity of 16 million already! Will Nijgadh as a fourth international airport for 15 million passengers be needed?!
Justifying Nijgadh International Airport
Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister, Rabindra Adhikari, is passionate about Nijgadh airport. He calls it a “game changer” for Nepal’s economy, a hub “bigger, busier and more advanced” than Indira Gandhi airport in New Delhi. Passion more than facts underlies this comment, though, as Indira Gandhi airport has 65 million passengers – not 15 million – a year.
Critics say that the idea of a hub is outdated and question whether Nijgadh can develop into an economic hub at all. “Nepal can build a hub airport, but whether it will actually evolve into a hub depends on how convenient international airlines find it,” says aviation analyst, Hemant Arjyal, adding that a fast-track from Nijgadh to Kathmandu matters, too.
“If passengers cannot reach Kathmandu within one hour after landing at Nijgadh, this multi-billion dollar airport will fail,” Arjyal says. “So, the key to Nijgad’s success will be how fast the fast-track to the Tarai will be.” The fast-track project – a freeway between Nijgadh and Kathmandu – has been delayed for years. But in January 2018 work actually started.
The fast-track project has its own critics. Local protests against the new 30 meters wide freeway have already started as it will cut through village land and many hectares of community forest. Khokana village at the outskirts of Kathmandu is the ending point of the fast track but is also a unique, cultural heritage site. Here locals feel like the victims of progress.
The fast-track between Kathmandu and Nijgadh is a “national pride project” to be completed in four years in parallel with Nijgadh airport and so far protests have been in vain. Nepal Army has already cleared several thousand trees. But the fast track also involves drilling a 1,4 kilometer tunnel through the hills outside Kathmandu. What if it’s delayed?
Road projects do tend to get delayed in Nepal. Minister Rabibdra Adhikari, however, is not overly concerned. Only a minority of passengers will need to connect to the capital anyway, he explains: “[T]his airport will be a hub, as I said, and will not depend solely on Kathmandu traffic. In fact, we think only 10% of the total traffic will be for Kathmandu.”
Nijgadh airport is to be a transit point like Indira Ghandi airport, not just an international airport serving passengers to and from Nepal. A large percentage of passengers will actually be en route to some other destination. It will be “true hub”, predicts advocates of the project, featuring two parallel runways and an airport city of some size surrounding it!
Transforming local Nepal forever
The airport capacity after the completion of three new international airports will not only be manifold higher than today. 9 million passengers in Gautam Buddha International Airport and 15 million in Nijgadh International Airport, as opposed to just 1 million in Pokhara International Airport and 5-6 million at TIA, will also shift capacity towards Terai.
The new fast-track freeway will make access between Kathmandu and the Terai easier and faster, if everything goes as projected. Transportation time will be cut back from 5-6 hours on the current Mugling road where traffic and occasional landslides during the monsoon can easily make the ride take even longer. The fast-track will take less than two hours!
The fast-track will in the words of one impact assessment, “transform the capital, eastern Terai and the country as a whole… Therefore, the Kathmandu-Terai Fast Track Project can be considered the single most important prospect for the improvement of traffic conditions and the creation of a major economic impact in Nepal over the coming decade.”
As for Nijgadh airport, the government has equally high expectations with respect to the economy. It envisions such a boost to the country’s economy as a result of the Nijgadh airport project that felling 2,4 million salwood trees, in the words of government infrastructure expert, Surya Raj Acharya, “is nothing compared to the economic advantage.”
But could Nijgadh airport not have been situated farther away from Bara National Park where no natural forest had to be felled in the order of 2,4 million salwood trees? According to minister Adhikari and government experts, the answer is no. Not even an expansion of Simara airport just ten kilometers away would have been an option, they maintain.
Environmentalists do not deny the capacity issue at TIA but are seriously concerned. Biodiversity expert and former member of Nepal Planning Commission, Prabhu Budhathoki, says: “This is going to be the most serious deforestation of the Tarai in the last 50 years, it will affect wildlife, and also damage hydrological ecosystem and agriculture.”
The government has pledged to replant the trees elsewhere. But environmentalist caution that such plantations can never replace the natural forest about to be lost, as it takes decades if not a century or longer for such forest to evolve.
The loss of forest cover may also destroy the local climate over time, fears Kishore Jha, a journalist based in Birgunj: “After the clearance of the forest, three districts will turn into a desert with frequent floods. Provincial government ministers have already expressed anger over the decision. This is the only remaining stretch of green forest in the area.”
Winners and losers
Most vast infrastructure projects have winners as well as losers. So, on the losing side in the Nijgadh airport and the fast-track project are villagers who will lose houses, land and forests, communities like Khokana who will see heritage sites buried under the gravel, and wildlife whose habitat is the forest at Nijgadh. More might be added to the list.
Worst is the situation for a community, Tangiya Basti, comprised of 7,380 people or about 1400 households inside the Nijgadh Airport area. Already in March 2017, landowners were given a 35-days notice to apply for land compensation before relocation. The local Tangiyabasti Stakeholders Committee is now struggling for relocation to a suitable area.
The winners? Well, the country’s economy, if government predictions hold. But will international passenger numbers sore from the current level of just 3,88 million – of which barely 1,5 million are tourists – to a volume that can justify not only 9 million passengers at Gautam Buddha International Airport, 1 million in Pokhara but also 15 million at Nijgadh?
Tree felling at Nijgadh has already started. It began even before the Project Development Report and Environment Impact Assessment had been approved. So on the ground, while questions about the actual advantages of building Nijgadh are still being debated, Nepal’s fourth international airport is already in the making. For better or worse.
Also said about the Nijgadh airport project:
“By 2035, the number of air passengers will reach 7.8 billion. Of them 3.5 billion will be travelling to the Asia Pacific region. Considering this situation, we have to be prepared to welcome more passengers from across the world.” Sanjeev Gautam, Director General of Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN).
“We are not against development, nor are we saying that the airport project should be dropped. Our only concern is that development must not destroy the ecology of Bara district. The area selected for Nijgadh airport is a prestigious forest of the country that should not be destroyed.” Salil Devkota, environment engineer and an EIA specialist.
“Nijgadh is Nijgadh. It is an ideal place for an international hub airport not just from a business standpoint, but also because of climate. This is one place in the Tarai which remains largely unaffected by fog even in winter.” Rabindra Adhikari, Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister (will this climate continue also after felling the forest…?)
“The government had approved the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] even before completing the DPR [Detailed Project Report] which is already contradictory to practice. Now, the government is in a hurry to cut down trees without having the DPR.” Suraj Shrestha, natural resources expert.
“Also, the EIA report has only listed few species of birds and animals which raises suspicion about the purpose of the project.” Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, botanist.
“Let us build Nijgadh, but only after taking into account that Nepal’s air space is enclosed by a country that does not give us anything easily or freely. Nijgadh’s future as an aviation hub is in India’s hands, and building a mammoth airport without taking air routes into account is like putting the cart before the horse.” Y. K. Bhattarai, retired Nepal Airlines captain.
“We are not just a land-locked but also air-locked country at the moment. But we are negotiating with India for more air routes…” Rabindra Adhikari, Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister.
“Some critics say the [TIA] airport’s $100million ADB-supported expansion project is being deliberately delayed to justify Nijgadh.” Om Astha Rai, Nepali Times.
“Although the government claims that selling the valuable timber from the site will fetch nearly Rs70 billion, it will prevent 22,500 tons of carbon from being sequestered in the vegetation annually, which in turn will deprive Nepal of earning Rs160 million annually from the global carbon fund.” Om Astha Rai, Nepali Times.
“The money from the sale of trees that will be cut down at the proposed construction site of an international airport in Nijgadh will pay for half of the construction cost, officials said.” Sangam Prasain, Kathmandu Post.