Putting the cart before the horse is a government tradition in most development projects.
In 2014, Nepal imported a batch of Chinese planes, only to find after they arrived that there were no pilots to fly them.
When the first two 17-seat Y12e planes reached Kathmandu, they remained grounded for months. The national airline Nepal Airlines Corporation had no pilots trained to fly them. Years passed and there were still no pilots. Finally, the shiny new planes were put away indefinitely.
Earlier in 2012, residents of the popular tourist city of Pokhara, demanding the construction of a new international airport, went on a relay hunger strike for months, even forcing the domestic airport to close.
The airport plan had been on the drawing board for decades and people had lost patience. The government finally hired China CAMC Engineering to build the international airport in May 2014, and work began in July 2017.
The government took out a soft loan of $215.96 million from China EXIM Bank in March 2016 to pay for the project, which was implemented on the engineering procurement and construction model.
Construction work at the international airport is now 95% complete, but it looks like it will be another year before planes can start using it. The snag is a nearby landfill that poses a bird strike hazard to aircraft. Until the landfill is cleared, the airport remains off-limits.
“The airport is full. It is an architectural masterpiece,” said Birendra Bahadur Basnet, Managing Director of Buddha Air, Nepal’s largest private airline which plans to connect Pokhara to all cities in the country in addition to some international destinations.
“But the main concern with the airport is the Bacche Baduwa landfill located close to the new airport. As the landfill attracts birds of prey such as vultures, kites and eagles, it poses a major threat to aircraft,” Basnet said. “Nobody will work if the landfill isn’t cleaned up.”
The landfill is 1.5 km from the airport on the banks of the Seti River. According to the Civil Aviation Rule 2002, no one is permitted to store and dispose of solid waste openly in and around the 3km airport boundary, as this may pose a risk of bird strikes, which was the case at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu.
More than 100 bird strikes during takeoff or landing have occurred at Kathmandu airport since 1990.
In 1996, a Thai Airways Airbus A300 was involved in a bird strike that damaged the left engine fan blades. The mutilated bodies of five to six eagles were found on the trail. The jet was stranded in Kathmandu for four days.
In 2000 and 2014 respectively, a Nepal Airlines Boeing 757 and a Jet Airways Boeing 737 lost engine power due to bird strikes. The plane was hit by a black kite on takeoff and crashed, killing all 16 passengers and three crew on board.
Pokhara Valley is a beautiful habitat for various species of birds due to its Seti Canyon, marshy lakes, dense forests and flat plains. Bird species recorded in the area are kingfisher, barbet, drongo, woodpecker, talker, flower woodpecker, flycatcher, egret and bulbul.
The birds are both residential and migratory, according to the airport’s environmental assessment report.
“There are at least 108 species of birds in and around the new airport,” said Bikram Gautam, airport preparedness operation and transport coordinator under the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. “If we move the landfill, the number of birds in the area will be reduced by 40 percent.”
Pokhara has experienced rapid urbanization and has become one of the most populated cities in the country. The daily waste sent to the landfill is more than 100 tons.
“We need to continuously watch birds, clear bushes and generate sounds to keep another 40% of birds away from the airport,” Gautam said.
“The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal cannot solve the landfill problem alone. It is a political issue that needs to be addressed through coordination between the three levels of government, civil society and political leaders. The dump is serious. We need an acceptable level of security,” he said during an interaction in Pokhara recently.
The landfill should have been moved by now, and that put the project in a state of uncertainty.
Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi handed over the symbolic key to the country’s third international airport to Nepal before its construction was completed. It was a gesture that the Chinese-funded airport would be ready for operation by July 10, the extended deadline given to the project contractor.
“We have no announced date for the opening of the airport although it is close to being completed,” said Hansa Raj Pandey, deputy director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. . “We are security conscious.”
Pandey said they could not announce the surgery date until the landfill was cleared.
Pokhara has seven lakes, offers spectacular views of mountain ranges including Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, and is the gateway to famous religious places like Muktinath and Jomsom. In 2019, the domestic airport handled over 700,000 passengers, making it the second busiest airport in Nepal after Kathmandu.
Tourism traders eagerly awaiting the start of international flights at the new airport are unhappy with the local population as well as the slow response from the federal government to the operation of the airport.
The airport is intended to improve the quality of tourism by creating employment opportunities to stimulate economic growth for poverty reduction.
“We are already late,” said Dhan Bahadur Nepali, spokesman for the metropolis. “We admit that we were late in identifying the new landfill. But the landfill is still a political issue. It is indeed a difficult task to find a new landfill because no one wants one near them.
He said they had identified three potential areas in Ward 33 and local leaders needed to convince people. “We cannot disclose the proposed location as it could become a political issue ahead of local elections.”
Pokhara Mayor Man Bahadur GC is undergoing medical treatment and Deputy Mayor Manju Gurung is campaigning.
“No one cares about the landfill issue,” said tourism entrepreneurs. “Construction was on everyone’s list of priorities. But once the airport is finished, no one takes it.
Bidya Bhattarai, CPN-UML MP representing Kaski Constituency 2, said the three levels of government should jointly commit to commissioning the airport as soon as possible. “The landfill issue is obviously political. But we have to find a solution. »
District Chief Jaya Raj Acharya said that once the clearance of the new landfill is completed, they will form a compensation determination committee to compensate the landowners who will be displaced by the landfill. “We are already late. We need to speed up the work. »
But there is no clarity on who will initiate it and make the decision. Officials say this will be a political agenda ahead of the next election.
“Obviously the issue is more sensitive than we imagined,” said city spokesman Nepali.
Due to geographical difficulties, the new airport can accommodate aircraft like the Boeing 757-200 with a maximum take-off weight of just over 100 tonnes. The Airbus A320-200 and similar aircraft types can operate from this airport with a load penalty, according to reports.
The international terminal has an area of 10,000 square meters, and the area of the domestic terminal is 4,000 square meters
The runway at Pokhara International Airport is 45 meters wide and 2,500 meters long, and has an east-west orientation. A taxiway 1,200 meters long and 23 meters wide connects the runway to parking areas, hangars and terminals.
The chief minister of Gandaki province has ordered a committee to prepare a technical report on the landfill issue, said Dipendra Karna, head of communications at Buddha Air. “The government must wake up before it’s late.”