By Khaled Abdullah and Abdelrahman al-Ansi
SANAA (Reuters) - One million Yemeni children face severe malnutrition within months as families struggle to pay for food in one of the Arab world's poorest countries, the U.N. World Food Programme has warned.
Political turmoil has pushed Yemen to the brink of a humanitarian crisis and aid agencies estimate half the country's 24 million people are malnourished.
Protests last year that forced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down pushed up food prices and unemployment to an estimated half of the labor force, up from about a third in 2010, as foreign aid fell to a trickle, according to economists and aid groups.
The price of basic commodities such as rice jumped by as much as 60 percent, they said.
"Even graver than the situation of food security is clearly the nutrition situation where we estimate that potentially one million children are at the risk of becoming acutely malnourished in the coming months," WFP Deputy Executive Director Ramiro Lopes Da Silva told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.
"Whilst we have a food security issue, you have food in the markets. So, the issue is not an issue of availability, the issue is an issue of access because a large segment of the population does not have the purchasing power," he said.
Severe, or acute, malnutrition is marked by severe wasting in children, according to the World Health Organization. If the condition worsens, it could lead to death.
Aid agencies warn that the $4 billion in aid pledged in May by Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbors and Western countries to support a political pact forged after the country teetered on the edge of civil war is not enough.
That pact saw Saleh, the country's ruler for more than three decades, give way to his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in February, after a 14-month revolt that allowed Islamist militants to seize control of parts of southern Yemen.
"There has been political turmoil for the past one-and-a-half years that has resulted in electricity supply shortage, resulting in an increase in fuel prices," Joy Singhal, Oxfam's deputy director in Yemen, said on Wednesday.
"That has had a direct impact on people's capacity to engage in productive employment ... limited earnings in the family, and that has resulted in a lack of purchasing power to be able to access the food and access the market."
(Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Pravin Char)