1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Nepal

Earthquake-proofing Nepal's at-risk airport

Thousands travel through Kathmandu's Tribhuban International Airport each day, however, questions remain over its state of preparedness in the event of an earthquake
(David Swanson/IRIN)

If an earthquake the magnitude of Haiti’s 2010 quake were to strike Nepal’s capital area, the country’s only international airport would be crippled, with no backup plan for receiving essential relief. But now, in response to long-standing predictions of such a catastrophe, the government has endorsed an earthquake preparedness plan for Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA); the plan is set to become public in one month.

Based on its most recent estimate, made in 2010, the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, said that if a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Kathmandu, it would kill an estimated 100,000 people, severely injure another 200,000, and displace 1.5 million. The disaster would damage 60 percent of homes beyond repair and wipe out almost all roads, leaving the airport as the last lifeline to transport relief supplies.

The airport disaster response plan - prepared by the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and the TIA Civil Aviation Office, with support from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), US Federal Aviation Administration and Canada’s University of British Columbia - was endorsed by the country’s National Aviation Security Committee in February.

All governmental and nongovernmental groups will be legally bound to follow the plan’s directives following the high-level endorsement, TIA operations director Deo Chandra Lal Karn told IRIN.

Emergency airport plan

The plan defines the responsibilities of the country’s civil aviation authority, airport officials and government agencies, including the Ministry of Home Affairs, Department of Immigration, Nepal Oil Corporation, police and army. It also covers communication, law enforcement, fire and rescue, medical care, and determining how relief will be delivered under severe duress.

It indicates the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) will take the lead in coordinating logistics with the government, such as finding space at the airport to run two separate emergency operations - known as humanitarian staging grounds - for an estimated 1,000 aid workers. CAAN will take overall lead.

The plan lays out the airport’s emergency response for the first 72 hours after a disaster, including recovery of critical facilities - including runways and air traffic control - as well as flight operations, land use, and short-term storage of relief deliveries. It covers the transit of domestic and foreign humanitarian assistance for 30 days. Assuming the state oil company will be hit, it also creates a backup oil depot to bunker fuel at the airport.

Flashback to Haiti

Nepal’s airport has been under close scrutiny since Haiti’s earthquake crippled its only international airport, preventing aid delivery for three days. The airport was only re-opened after the US military flew in communications and air-traffic management equipment and provided aluminium matting to boost the tarmac.

Until then, planes loaded with food, water, medicine and rescue crews struggled to enter limited Haitian air space, with flights circling for hours before landing or being diverted.

“All the aid airplanes that flew in Haiti were bottlenecked, and big airplanes were blocked or could not land easily,” said USACE project manager Patrick Fitzgerald.

Like Haiti, Nepal has only one international airport.

A 2011 investigation found that TIA was at high risk of incurring damage, particularly its 3,000m runway. TIA’s Karn said a major earthquake would destroy three-quarters of the runway, leaving only some 1,800m to bring in humanitarian aid. The minimum runway length for the C-130, a military cargo plane used to transport emergency supplies, to land and manoeuvre at TIA’s altitude is 1,900m. 

TIA's taxiway - where planes are unloaded and serviced - is also inconveniently positioned, which could clog life-saving air traffic during an emergency.

Still not enough

“We're happy to see that the airport authorities are taking disaster preparedness very seriously, as their airport could be the key lifeline for millions of people in the Kathmandu Valley,” said Brett Jones, director of the US embassy’s Disaster Risk Reduction Office in Nepal.

But a response plan is only a piece of paper without funding, say experts.

Implementing the plan’s directives to stockpile emergency relief supplies at the airport, lodge humanitarian workers there and build a new oil depot all depends on funding, said Karn.

“There is still lot of funding [needed] to back up the plan. We need a tremendous amount of resources, and we haven’t got any of those resources at the moment in the country,” said Andrew Martin, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Nepal.

As part of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, OCHA and the government are leading efforts to boost the country's emergency preparedness and response capabilities.

WFP’s Emergency and Response Unit in Kathmandu told IRIN it will present its earthquake response plan (budget of US$1 million) - part of the overall airport emergency plan - to the government and UN humanitarian coordinator this month for endorsement.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help us be the transformation we’d like to see in the news industry

The current journalistic model is broken: Audiences are demanding that the hierarchical, elite-led system of news-gathering and presentation be dismantled in favour of a more inclusive and holistic model based on more equitable access to information and more nuanced and diverse narratives.

The business model is also broken, with many media going bankrupt during the pandemic – despite their information being more valuable than ever – because of a dependence on advertisers. 

Finally, exploitative and extractive practices have long been commonplace in media and other businesses.

We think there is a better way. We want to build something different.

Our new five-year strategy outlines how we will do so. It is an ambitious vision to become a transformative newsroom – and one that we need your support to achieve.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian by making a regular contribution to our work - and help us deliver on our new strategy.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.