SANAA/DUBAI (Reuters) - Fatima Al-Aqra’s eyes glazed over for a moment as 14-month-old Enas, the scrawny infant at her feet, tugged feebly at the hem of her tattered black veil.
“He does this because he knows food is on the way,” said the young mother, coming out of her daze to throw a few granules of sugar into a brown paste of breadcrumbs and hot water.
“This will be his only meal of the day.”
Political turmoil has pushed Yemen, already one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, to the brink of a humanitarian crisis to rival the one that ravaged the Horn of Africa last year.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, says 57 percent of Yemen’s 12 million children are chronically malnourished -- the highest level of chronic malnutrition in the world after Afghanistan.
In 2012, an estimated 750,000 children will face what it describes as acute malnutrition, of whom two-thirds will be at risk of dying or suffering from lifelong physical and cognitive impairment, said UNICEF’s Yemen representative Geert Cappelaere.
Nearly a quarter of Yemen’s 28 million population -- about seven million people -- are now in dire need of food.
“We can’t afford sugar, rice or beans. The last time my children ate chicken was over a year and a half ago,” said Amin Mohammed Shirad, a 45-year-old father of eight living in a two-room shack on the dusty outskirts of the capital.
Like many other families, the Shirads subsist on crops and vegetables grown in a small plot of land behind their house. The family food supplies are now so low that they have begun rationing meals. Amin says he has been eating one meal a day and that his children have all gone without dinner for the past week.
“The most important thing in our lives right now is flour. If that goes, we will starve,” said Amin, shifting his six-month-old baby in his lap.
Yemen will hold an election on February 21 to replace President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who transferred power to his deputy in November after months of protests that have severely weakened the central government in Sanaa.
The protests helped end Saleh’s 33-year grip on power and added to turmoil that pushed up food prices and unemployment to an estimated half of the labor force in 2011, up from around 35 percent in 2010, as foreign aid fell to a trickle, according to economists and aid organizations.
Tens of thousands of Yemenis lost their jobs in 2011 and the price of basic commodities like rice jumped by as much as 60 percent, Sanaa University economist Mohamed al-Maitami said.
Enas’s father Mohammed roams the streets of their neighborhood, fishing discarded plastic bottles out of garbage bins to sell to shops in exchange for bread.
Before 2011’s uprising, Mohammed had a job mixing concrete for a floor-tile factory. But power cuts and soaring diesel prices brought on by the destruction of oil pipelines by anti-government tribesmen forced the business to close.
Compounding the problem, aid agencies, fearing a security breakdown, pulled their staff out of the country, halting dozens of public welfare projects relied on by thousands of Yemenis. Others cut back operations significantly due to the violence that followed the protests, which began last January.
While some agencies like the World Bank have since returned to Yemen, others are still waiting for further signs of stability.
Oxfam says it hopes the poll will encourage Yemen’s wealthy Gulf Arab neighbors - some of whom are currently offering Yemen small amounts of aid in the form of oil and gas packages - to support the impoverished state.
“Governments weren’t (financially) supporting Yemen because of the political situation, so we would want to see a shift in that,” said Oxfam country manager for Yemen Colette Fearon.
“It’s not the (people‘s) fault what the regime is, so they shouldn’t be penalized. For a humanitarian crisis you should overcome whatever the politics are.”
The election has already run into problems, however, with both southern separatists and rebels in the north saying they will boycott it.
Many families now spend half of their monthly income on bread alone, according to the World Food Programme’s Yemen-based media officer Georgia Warner. Maitami said buying clean water can absorb a remaining 30 to 40 percent of their household income.
The World Food Programme lists Yemen as the 11th most food-insecure country in the world.
Yemen has vowed to face the growing threat of food insecurity, but local economists say these promises were not fulfilled and that Saleh’s government instead directed funds to fight the rebels.
“In cooperation with the United Nations, we put in place an emergency plan to overcome child malnutrition through medical and health intervention,” Yemen’s deputy health minister Majed al-Junaid told Reuters on Sunday.
“There are many public services in the country that didn’t receive any budget in 2011,” said economist Maitami. “A lot of budgeted money was... not being used to ease lives of Yemenis but to buy arms.”
As time passes without substantive moves to help them, Yemeni families are losing hope.
“We won’t survive another year like the last,” said Fatima from her sparse living room.
Her son’s skin crinkled like thin leather in her hands as she tried to feed him, his gaunt cheeks stretched painfully for six mouthfuls of grey gruel, all she could afford to let him swallow for that day.
“Like all Yemenis we are praying for a way out of this misery.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall