Nepal’s Supreme Court axes plans to build controversial new airport

  • Around 2.4 million trees, both big and small, had to be cut to construct the two-runway airport.
  • The decision forces the government to look elsewhere in the country for possible locations to build the second international aviation hub.

KATHMANDU — In a “historic announcement,” Nepal’s Supreme Court has ordered the government not to build a controversial international airport in the country’s south.

The order comes four years after judges issued a stay on the $3.45-billion Nijgadh International Airport Project after activists filed a petition citing environmental concerns. Nijgadh would have become the country’s second international aviation hub.

The court annulled the government’s decision to build the international airport in Nijgadh and ordered it to seek an alternative site that meets legal and environmental requirements, said Supreme Court spokesperson Bimal Paudel.

“This is a historic win for the cause of the environment in Nepal,” campaigner Shristi Singh Shrestha told Mongabay. “It sets a good precedent for the future as well.”

The project has courted controversy since it was first planned in the 1990s, as it involved the cutting of the last remaining patch of dense forests in Nepal’s eastern plains. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) commissioned by the government further aggravated concerns, activists said.

According to the EIA, which the government approved in 2018, 2.4 million trees, both big and small, would have had to be cut to construct the two-runway airport.

The full text of the judgment will be available soon, Paudel said.

“The major concern with the project was not just about the number of trees, but also about the encroachment of key corridors used by wild elephants,” Shrestha said. “The other issue is about the groundwater stresses associated with such massive deforestation.”

Until recently, Nepal had only one airport, located amid the dense urban sprawl of its capital, Kathmandu. Although two new regional international airports have been built in Pokhara and Bhairahawa, they can’t accommodate large aircraft or handle heavy traffic.

In addition to serving Nepali travelers, the government expected the new airport to serve as an international hub for 22 countries, including neighboring India.

The government, however, was unable to raise funds for the ambitious project amid questions about the viability of the new airport.
Two days before the court’s announcement, the government, in its annual policy and programs speech, said it would start construction on the project in 2022 or 2023, even though a verdict on the case had not yet been handed down.

“This had already hinted to us that the project could go ahead, but the court verdict forces the government to start everything from scratch to build the second international airport,” Shrestha said.

Banner Image: A computer-generated model of the proposed international airport in Nepal’s Nijgadh. Image Wikimedia

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