How Famine Works

By: Jessika Toothman  | 
Refugees from the Darfur Region of South Sudan flooded the borders of Chad in 2004, leaving the neighboring nation struggling to feed and house their numbers. Here, refugees receive rations of onions, beans, flour and oil.
Scott Nelson/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The word famine carries powerful connotations. For people living in the modern developed world, it might bring to mind media coverage of emaciated, severely malnourished children living in Africa, their bellies swollen, their ribs protruding beneath spindly arms, their mournful expressions evident on tear-streaked dusty cheeks.

For those thinking historically, there's a good chance the word famine calls up episodes like the one that took place during China's Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961. A study commissioned by the Chinese government conducted in the mid-1980s figured the death toll of the Great Famine to be about 17 million. Since then, other independent sources have pored over archival evidence and put the number closer to 30 million, and perhaps as high as 35 or even 45 million [sources: New York Times, Financial Times]. Victims of the Great Famine died due to starvation and violence, and cases of torture and cannibalism were uncovered in the records.


It's unlikely a concentrated famine of such massive proportions could take place today, with global efforts to reduce instances of extreme food shortages and hunger, but the world's population is far from full in terms of food. It's hard to determine — and even harder to internalize — the numbers involved when talking about world hunger. In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated about 828 million people worldwide were affected by hunger [source: FAO].

But famine is worse than chronic hunger or malnutrition. While malnutrition can cause serious physical and mental health problems, famines are characterized by widespread fatalities, with little recourse except for what comes in the way of outside humanitarian relief efforts.

But first, how does a famine start?


What Causes a Famine to Break Out?

Malnutrition stems from two crucial food shortages: the land to grow food and the money to buy food. Many factors contribute to these two issues, from poor growing conditions to lack of adequate transportation infrastructure to political and economic unrest. These factors tie in closely to the concept of food security. If a region has food security, it means food is available, people have access to that food and people know how to leverage that food (along with water and sanitation) to meet their health needs.

Many factors can affect food security, leading to malnutrition, or even famine in turn. Natural disasters such as drought, crop blight, cold spells and flooding often contribute, and are only increasing with climate change. Such events — along with political conflicts, civil war and other major disruptions — can cause a phenomenon sometimes referred to as livelihood shock. The disruption is so profound that a population cannot quickly recover from the immediate ramifications and the situation spirals out of control. Such was the case during the Great Famine that took place in Ireland during the late 1840s.


Other contributors to famine include economic and political dynamics, both regional and global. For example, when food production, and therefore security, starts to stutter in one nation or region, others with more money may stockpile what is available to protect their own populations, thus driving up prices for those already struggling. Similarly, nations with food to export may lock their borders, creating further troubles in terms of supply and demand.

In this way, poverty is a big part of food stability. While there may be enough food in the world to feed everyone, the market often impedes food from flowing to all those who need it. It's also a positive feedback cycle: People who don't get enough to eat are more likely to perform poorly or lack resources to better their situation, which in turn locks them into poverty, and they continue to not get enough to eat.


What Happens During a Famine?

In 2006, a severe water crisis in Kenya, located in East Africa, 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.


Can We Prevent Famines?

These World Food Programme workers are delivering an allocation of fortified flour to a warehouse in the West Bank Palestinian town of Dura. The 2008 spike in food prices was a blow to the world's hungry.
David Silverman/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A lot has been and is still being done worldwide to try to decrease undernourishment and prevent famines, but so far, these efforts have not been resoundingly successful; around a billion people don't have adequate food to eat on a regular basis, and famines do still strike. Richer nations like the United States routinely give aid money to poorer nations to try to negate hunger issues and prevent food emergencies, but so far, nothing has proved a perfect solution.

It can be tricky to balance today's needs with tomorrow's, when funds and resources are limited. Aid groups try to cooperate to fight hunger on all fronts. Organizations like the United Nations' World Food Programme and UNICEF work to fight both chronic and acute food insecurity. For example, the former runs school food programs to help feed children while bolstering educational efforts, and food-for-work programs which feed struggling community members in exchange for work on infrastructure improvements and environmental conservation efforts. These ongoing projects and others like them can be found in countries ranging from Ethiopia to Ecuador and Côte d'Ivoire to Cambodia. When famine does strike, UNICEF acts by delivering emergency food assistance — rations that are sometimes not the full recommended daily amount, but enough to cheat death for another day until the situation stabilizes.


Early intervention is key to successfully staving off a famine, and one controversial aspect of all this is whether financial beneficiaries and aid organizations act appropriately when it comes to addressing immediate needs versus long-term needs of places where food security is precarious. Some also argue that unaffected populations are slow to respond until a situation is desperate, even when there are signs that a region is heading toward chronic malnourishment or even famine. People in this camp think mitigation efforts should begin long before photos of starving children are snapped to incite an international response, especially in famine-prone places.

Others think even that isn't enough. They believe restrictions and regulations — such as those placed on the global food trade — need to be seriously rethought to even the playing field between the haves and the have-nots [source: New York Times]. They also suggest aid organizations need to prioritize solving hunger in the long term, rather than simply slapping a Band-Aid on a bad situation. The same populations — particularly those in Africa — often suffer from famines over and over because of serious root causes that must be fixed if the hunger crisis is to be stamped out entirely.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

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