Niamey - Refugees fleeing the confict in northern Mali are placing even greater strain on the Sahel region, already battling a severe food crisis after failed harvests last year that have left millions hungry.

Over 18 million people in eight countries running across the Sahel, a semi-arid belt crossing the north of Africa, are already facing food shortages and drought.

Now the 250 000 Malians estimated by the UN refugee agency UNHCR to have poured into Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria have put even greater pressure on food resources.

According to Malek Triki, a spokesman for the UN's World Food Programme in West Africa, unrest in Mali had “put an extra burden on local communities” who were left to “find food for themselves and their children”.

A March coup led to Islamist and rebel factions seizing control of the country's vast north where Bamako says they pressed child soldiers into service and committed rapes and civilian massacres.

Last week the prime minister of Burkina Faso sounded the alarm in the region.

“If there are more big influxes of refugees it is going to be difficult,” Luc Adolphe Tiao warned.

Sahel residents who have helped refugees have ended up struggling themselves.

“We have shared our meagre reserves with the Malian refugees,” said one villager from Niger, whose village of Bani-Bangou, on the border with Mali, was home to camps of refugees.

“Our stocks quickly ran out and we had to flee the village for town,” he said, referring to Niger's capital Niamey.

“The crisis has been merciless,” Moussa Zakaria, another villager who also had to leave his home for Niamey, told AFP, adding that he hoped the upcoming harvest would “end the nightmare”.

The region needs good harvests this September if the dire situation generated last year when crops failed across a swathe of eight countries after late and erratic rains was to improve.

The 2011 crisis, combined with a region-wide drought in 2005 and Niger's food crisis of 2010, has left the Sahel and its people in a fragile state.

Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon and Chad were principally affected, with 8.5 million people facing “severe” food shortages.

Niger, with six million people going hungry, was among the hardest hit.

The effects of the crisis on Mali have been compounded since March by the occupation of the country's north where the Islamists are now in control.

UNCHR estimates that 160 000 people in Mali have been internally displaced by the conflict.

Humanitarian aid to help the Sahel get back on its feet has so far totalled $1.07 billion of the $1.6 billion needed.

Though “far from enough”, the amount raised by the international community was “relatively acceptable”, according to Oxfam's representative for West Africa, Eric Hazard.

Worst-hit by the crisis are the region's children. One million were severely malnourished, a sad record “in the history of humanitarian aid intervention” said the non-governmental organisation Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

Though Chad's Agriculture Minister Adoum Djimet maintains the crisis is “under control”, the UN's children's agency UNICEF said the situation “remains critical.”

“In nine out of 11 countries, more than 15 percent of children are suffering from severe malnutrition,” said aid worker Josephine Ferro.

Soaring food prices have made the little food available too expensive for many.

A 100-kilgramme bag of corn that once cost $46, was now priced at $56.

Water was scarce and not up to international standards, said Oxfam.

Bringing an end to the crisis required “going beyond emergency aid”, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou wrote in a piece for French newspaper Le Monde.

He called for an overhaul in agriculture production and stock rearing and better irrigation to prevent drought.

A deadly cholera outbreak and a surge earlier this week in locust numbers in Mali and Niger threaten to create more problems for the region. - Sapa-AFP