SINEGODAR, Niger (Reuters) - Abdoulaye Mahamadou watches with a growing sense of trepidation as the new arrivals to his Niger desert village emerge every morning from flimsy tents made from cloth rags and sticks.
Mahamadou, chief of the 1,600-head village of Sinegodar, is doing all he can to help them. But these 13,000 refugees from a Tuareg rebel uprising just over the border in Mali are quite literally eating him out of house and home.
“Just today I had 200 come to ask me to find them something to eat. But the people of this village are more in need than ever - they haven’t got any food either,” he told Reuters.
Life has always been precarious in Sinegodar and hundreds of villages like it across the Sahel, the parched belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world’s poorest countries on the southern rim of the Sahara.
But this year millions face not only failed rains but also the after-effects of the Libyan war to the north and the shockwaves from Nigeria’s battle with Islamist sect Boko Haram to the south.
“This year there is one factor on top of the other. It is a cocktail which is putting enormous strain on households across the region,” said Madeleine Evrard Diakite, Niger-based adviser for British charity Oxfam.
Climate change has made Sinegodar and other settlements across the Sahel drier by the year, subjecting their populations to an ever longer yearly “lean season” when food stocks dwindle but the new harvest is still months off.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates local cereal output fell 25 percent in 2011, and Mauritania and Chad saw huge 50 percent drops. It says more than 16 million people will be hit by food shortages over this year’s lean season, which is due to start in a matter of weeks.
UNICEF is preparing to treat more than one million children for severe malnutrition.
The tell-tale signs of impending crisis have been around for weeks: food prices have spiked by up to a half above normal levels while entire families from the countryside decamp to cities like the Niger capital Niamey to beg on the streets - images all too familiar from previous crises in 2005 and 2010.
If the hunger will be particularly sharp this year, much of the cause can be traced back to factors outside the usual cycle of drought and food scarcity.
In Nigeria, 10,000 Niger nationals, mostly migrant workers, have fled back north across the border fearing the bomb attacks from the Boko Haram Islamic set.
To the north, the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s ironfisted rule in Libya has had a de-stabilizing effect. Heavily-armed Malian Tuaregs who fought in Gaddafi’s army have returned home and joined a rebellion seeking to carve out a new Tuareg nation in the northern half of a country over twice the size of France.
Since the start of the year the rebel advance and government riposte have forced an estimated 195,000 from their homes, with most escaping to Niger and other neighbors such as Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
The dire living conditions of the refugees and the strain they put on local resources have prompted Nigerien authorities to signal 155 cases of cholera along its border with Mali. They have also cited cases of meningitis - an infection that attacks the brain and can kill in hours - in at least three regions.
“The problem we have in northern Mali and surrounding areas is the security backdrop,” UNICEF Regional Chief of Emergency Grant Leaity said of the risks of working in conflict zones.
“Anything that slows down the response to children when they are already sick is likely to increase the mortality,” he said.
A third headache is the return to Niger over the past year of some 228,000 migrant workers from Libya to a country already struggling to support its existing population of 16 million.
A typical case is Djibril Saley, who for years scraped a living at a Tripoli dry-cleaning business. His $200 monthly salary covered rent and food for his wife and child, and sometimes he could even send cash home to the family in Niger.
When the 2011 uprising started, Saley’s black skin made him a target for lynching by pro-rebel vigilantes who were convinced Gaddafi was using Africans as mercenaries to keep power. In the end he fled: now, instead of being able to support his extended family in Niamey, he has become an extra burden to them.
“Sometimes I tell myself it would have been better to have stayed for the war than to have landed in this misery. There is nothing here,” Saley, 40 and jobless, told Reuters at the home of his elderly parents.
“I am proud of what I earned in Libya. I got married on that money and I could help my family. Now look - it’s my mother and father who are supporting me.”
While local governments will be grappling with the social and security impact of the Libyan conflict for years, its effect on the food crisis is something they must cope with immediately.
Niger has been slow to react to past droughts but has won praise for rapidly sounding the alarm to aid agencies and for its own efforts to distribute food rations and set up labor schemes for the returnees from Libya.
The international aid effort has so far been slow to bear fruit. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said only $218 million had been raised as of March 13 compared to just over $1 billion needed to cover the Sahel’s food, farming and nutrition needs alone.
“We witnessed last year the situation spiraling out of control in East Africa as the aid community failed to act swiftly,” said Oxfam Regional Director for West Africa Mamadou Biteye of the 2011 food crisis in the Horn of Africa.
“The worst can be avoided and thousands of lives will be saved if we act now. It’s that simple.”
Writing and additional reporting by Mark John in Dakar; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall