India’s new airport unsafe due to bird strike, activists say

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By Webdesk

Mumbai, India – When the first runway at Navi Mumbai International Airport becomes operational in late 2024, Mumbai’s second airport will be able to handle 20 million passengers per year.

When completed in 2032, the airport will eventually be able to serve 90 million passengers per year.

The airport developer and the city government say the project is an essential piece of infrastructure to ease the strain on the existing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, which currently receives nearly 50 million passengers a year.

But some aviation experts and activists are concerned that the airport’s location poses a risk to aviation safety. They say the proximity of two major bird sanctuaries and the feeding grounds of several species of migratory birds makes aircraft vulnerable to bird strikes.

So far, their pleas seem to fall on deaf ears.

Navi Mumbai International Airport is being built in Navi Mumbai, a planned development that is part of the wider Mumbai metropolitan region, chosen for its proximity to the country’s financial capital and international port facilities. The airport site is close to Belapur’s business district, manufacturing centers such as Taloja, Patalganga, Ambernath and Roha, and the town of Panvel.

The site is also just over 10 km from Karnala Bird Sanctuary, home to over 200 bird species, and close to mangroves, mudflats and wetlands that attract migratory birds such as flamingos, starlings, buntings and rose finches. Many of these natural areas are being reclaimed for the construction of the airport.

Skyline view of Navi Mumbai International Airport building with water and vegetation in the foreground.
Navi Mumbai International Airport is under construction on land near mangroves, mudflats and wetlands that attract migratory birds [Deborah Grey/Al Jazeera]

SM Satheesan, an expert in bird strike prevention, believes the new airport’s location makes it “very dangerous”, especially considering a bird strike case he investigated several years ago in New Delhi that took place far of each habitat.

“I examined the bird remains and they belonged to flamingos, despite there being no large flamingo habitats in the area,” Satheesan told Al Jazeera. “Now at the Navi Mumbai site, where there’s a flamingo sanctuary nearby, the flamingos are going to wreak havoc!”

Satheesan said destroying birds’ natural habitats, such as mudflats and wetlands, also makes it more likely they will venture into airport grounds.

“The airstrip provides a place to rest and feed for birds that are being driven from their other usual habitats. It will be a dining table… of a kind where birds can find crushed remains of smaller animals, insects and termites,” he said.

BN Kumar, head of environmental advocacy group NatConnect, expressed similar concerns.

“Migratory birds have high location fidelity,” Kumar told Al Jazeera. “The wetlands must therefore be preserved to ensure that the birds do not venture into the airport area.”

The City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), the coordinating agency for the project, appointed the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) more than a decade ago to conduct a detailed investigation into the matter.

Since then, BNHS has been publishing periodic reports on bird habitats and movements, which have been cited in the environmental impact statement prepared by the Adani group, which is building the airport.

The reports identified five key wetlands in the area: NRI, TS Chanakya, Belpada, Bhendkhal and Panje, and emphasized the importance of preserving them to prevent birds from finding their way into aircraft flight paths or the runway.

“We observe bird high tides during the October to May period in the wetlands near NRI and TSC on Palm Beach Road and the wetlands in the Uran area,” the BNHS said in its 2014 report.

“These birds migrated in flocks from roosts to the creeks and open mud flats on the coast to forage at low tide and return at high tide.”

Environmental activist Debi Goenka, the founder of Conservation Action Trust (CAT), said he has written to multiple authorities about the issue but has not received a response.

“We had written to the Ministry of Aviation and the DGCA [Directorate General of Civil Aviation]and unfortunately we didn’t even get a confirmation let alone an answer,” Goenka told Al Jazeera.

In his July 24, 2018 letter, Goenka pointed out that the BNHS report “revealed that the site is in the midst of extremely bird-rich habitat. This location is therefore extremely unsafe for both air passengers and birds.”

The existing Mumbai International Airport is approaching maximum capacity [Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport]

CIDCO did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A spokesman for Navi Mumbai International Airport Ltd (NMIAL), the authority responsible for the construction, maintenance and operation of the airport, said new roosts are being developed outside the airport to keep birds away from the site.

“Birds are attracted to resting places. Bombay Natural History Society in previous reports has suggested roosts across Thane Creek and south of Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, which was away from the airport,” the spokesman told Al Jazeera.

“The sites are being developed as resting places to lure and house the birds away from the airport.”

The spokesperson dismissed fears that the site could be susceptible to bird strikes.

“It is important to note that the Karnala Bird Sanctuary is not in the flight path to the airport,” the spokesman said. “In addition, the mud flats at Sewri across Thane Creek are more than 15 to 16 km long. [9-10 miles] away from the airport.”

However, Deepak Apte, a scientist who has studied bird strikes in detail, said activists are rightly concerned.

“Bird-related accidents are usually rare, but in the case of this location, these birds are squeezed into smaller and smaller areas, forcing them to form large flocks,” Apte told Al Jazeera.

“Torque management is a challenge. We need sophisticated equipment to track swarm movements, especially given the relationship with tidal changes.”

“Migratory birds follow the same patterns every year and rest and feed in the same locations,” Apte added, explaining that any changes in locations are likely to affect the movement of bird flocks.

Flamingos and other birds nest and forage near the site where Mumbai's second airport is under construction.  A multi-storey residential building can be seen in the background.
Flamingos and other birds nest and forage near the site where Mumbai’s second airport is under construction [Hemanshi Kamani/Reuters]

Supporters of the project point to the need to expand Mumbai’s flight capacity.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport – opened in the 1940s – handled 4.5 million passengers and more than 27,000 flights in January alone, averaging more than 140,000 passengers and 882 flights per day.

“The recorded number of passengers for calendar year 2019 (at CSMIA) was 49.8 million,” the NMIAL spokesperson said.

After a brief pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, passenger traffic has picked up again and is expected to reach 49 million passengers by the end of the 2023 calendar year.

“We will run at peak capacity for the next five years, which will be around 55 million passengers,” said the spokesman.

“The Navi Mumbai International Airport is being developed to serve an eventual airport capacity of 90 million annual passengers, including domestic and international passengers. It will also have 2.5 million tons per year of cargo handling capacity.”

Environmentalists such as Goenka, the founder of CAT, argue that a better site could have been chosen for the city’s second airport, including a 728-hectare site near the town of Kalyan originally developed by the British as an airstrip. during the Second World War.

“There was a better location in Nevali near Kalyan,” said Goenka. “It was midway between Mumbai and Pune and would have served both cities.”

“This land was already owned by the Ministry of Defense. Moreover, this land already had an airstrip and would have been easier to develop compared to the Navi Mumbai land where mangroves are being reclaimed, wetlands and mudflats are under threat, hills need to be leveled and rivers are diverted for the construction of the airport.

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