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How Famine Works


What Happens During a Famine?
In 2006, a severe water crisis in Kenya meant some 2.5 million people were at risk of starvation. These two boys, from Dambas, Kenya, helped take special care of the few livestock that remained.
In 2006, a severe water crisis in Kenya meant some 2.5 million people were at risk of starvation. These two boys, from Dambas, Kenya, helped take special care of the few livestock that remained.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

People often take to the streets and riot when food prices soar and the threat of potential starvation starts to loom large. Such was the case in 2008, when the price of rice shot through the roof. Rioting took place around the world -- from Egypt to Haiti to Bangladesh -- as food security evaporated across much of the developing world. Because of the ability of richer nations to protect their populations' food supply, poorer nations are often all too aware of what happens when stocks of food start to dwindle and the price of what's left makes it impossible for many to obtain.

When the situation becomes truly dire -- perhaps a drought has disrupted crop production for several growing seasons or a violent regime has armed the border, blocking food imports -- then food security issues can transform from a chronic shortage to an acute hardship, and famine can descend.

Children and the elderly are most susceptible to the trauma of famine, and malnutrition in general. About 6 million children fall victim to hunger each year; that's an average of 17,000 a day [source: CNN]. Both children and the elderly lack the stamina that healthy adults possess, although the latter population will start to suffer as well as time goes on. Disease goes hand-in-hand with famine because hungry people's bodies are less able to fight off infections. If food isn't eventually obtained, famine victims will waste away, a process that is often accelerated by illness.

When the drought or war or other disaster that caused the famine (or just the famine itself) forces victims to flee their homeland, the conditions can be even more challenging, as refugee populations are often pushed into marginal lands that aren't ideally suited for agriculture. If such a situation occurs, humanitarian aid groups like UNICEF try to swoop in with emergency supplies to help tide over the refugees until a more permanent solution can be devised.


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