|Ripple effects from Libya's conflict have caused many to flee and swelled rebel ranks in Mali [EPA]
Thousands of people in western Niger who fled a rebellion in Mali are suffering from a severe shortage of food and water, local officials and aid providers have said.
"We must fear a humanitarian catastrophe, if nothing is done," said Boureima Issaka of the Niger-based aid group Timidria. Issak spoke from Chinegodar, a small village that has seen an influx of some 6,000 refugees in less than a month.
The UN Refugee Agency said on Tuesday that an estimated 22,000 people have fled from Mali to neighbouring countries to escape fighting between government troops and armed rebels that has caused dozens of casualties on either side.
The combat began on January 17, when the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) launched an attack in northern Mali - the largest offensive by Tuareg rebels since 2009 - sparking clashes with the army.
Many Tuareg fighters were employed by Muammer Gaddafi's regime in Libya, and his fall is believed to have led them to return to the fighting in their homelands.
Most of the 10,000 refugees who have arrived in Niger are sleeping in the open with little access to shelter, clean water, food or medicine, while a further 9,000 have arrived in Mauritania and 3,000 have fled to Burkina Faso, the UN said.
Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a spokewoman at UNCHR, told Al Jazeera that people fled from the violence, as well in anticipation of more possible violence between security forces and rebel fighters.
"The violence is pushing people out of northern Mali ... but not everyone who has fled from Mali is Malian, some are from Niger who were living in Mali. So it is not just the Taureg who have been forced to flee."
Many Niger nationals have been living in Mali for decades, with scores crossing the border between the two countries to find grazing land for their livestock.
Without indicating how many more were expected to be displaced, Lejeune-Kaba said that the agency had the stockpile to deal with 50,000 people in the region, if needed.
Chinegodar, 10 kilometres from the border, is grappling with a food crisis following a country-wide drought, and the influx of refugees has further stretched resources.
"We shared with them what little food we had; there is nothing left to eat," Abdoulaye Mohamed, Chinegodar village chief, told the AFP news agency.
The village, which normally numbers 1,600 residents, has also seen its only well dry up, prompting a severe water shortage, according to Mohamed.
Children are among those suffering from malnutrition and dehydration in the refugee camp.
"These children are terribly hungry, we can hear their crying every night," said Balki, a Chinegodar resident who is sheltering 10 of the refugees in her modest home.
Poor health conditions
General conditions in the Niger refugee camp are also poor, according to Boureima Issaka, the aid worker.
"The majority of people no longer bathe; they sleep under the stars at the mercy of wind, cold nights, scorpions and snakes," Issaka said.
Shelters made of blankets and cloth protect the refugees from the hot sun and cold nights, but the situation remains bleak.
A UN mission visited the village last week and found conditions to be extremely difficult and the hygiene deplorable, prompting fear of a cholera epidemic.
The crisis is compounded by the fact that the Malian region of Menaka - one of the main flashpoints in the latest fighting - was the principal source of essential commodities for Chinegodar.
For now, the Chinegodar mayor's office has offered the refugee camp half a tonne of cereal, Doctors Without Borders has provided a few boxes of medicine, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working on the water
The refugees themselves leave early in the morning to pick berries or pods of "Dani," a thorny plant sought out in times of scarcity.
Still, some refugees have not eaten in days and wait anxiously for aid.
"Give us something to eat, I suffer from dizziness," Nako, a Malian woman in the refugee camp, told a Doctors Without Borders team tallying the number of malnourished children.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies