The UN's top human rights official warned on Wednesday of the potential broader regional consequences of Iraq's water crisis.
Water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which account for more than 90 per cent of Iraq's freshwater reserves, have declined significantly over the years, partly as a result of the construction of dams and diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Iran.
“Just yesterday [Tuesday], the minister of water resources announced that water levels in Iraq are the lowest they have ever been,” Volker Turk said at a news conference in Baghdad.
Mr Turk said he had spent the past four days in Baghdad, Erbil and Basra, meeting the Prime Minister, the President and the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, among others.
He recounted personally witnessing the tangible effects of climate change in the southern Iraqi region of Basra.
“Standing in searing heat in that scarred landscape, breathing air polluted by the many gas flares dotting the region, it was clear to me that the era of global boiling has indeed begun,” he said.
“This is a climate emergency. And it is high time it is treated like one. Not just for Iraq but for the world.”
Iraq has been categorised by the UN as the fifth most vulnerable country to the climate crisis, due to its increasing loss of arable land due to salinisation, less rainfall and prolonged heatwaves.
'The era of global boiling has arrived,' UN chief says – video
“The serious environmental degradation here,” he said, is the result of a toxic mix of violence, oil industry excesses, global warming, reduced rainfall, and lack of effective water management and regulation.
He welcomed the Iraqi government's overt dedication to tackling the pressing issues of climate change and water scarcity but criticised the continuing legal action against journalists and activists regarding the matter, citing their detrimental effect on freedom of speech.
Mr Turk also highlighted accounts of violence, intimidation and death threats against environmental activists, stressing the need for increased transparency.
One activist pleaded for the protection of rights defenders, saying: “It should not be dangerous to share data and raise awareness of the problem. We need to work together to mitigate the impact – lives are at risk.”