Famines in the 21st Century

Famines in the 21st Century

“Famine is already a reality in parts of South Sudan. Unless we act now, it is only a matter of time until it affects other areas and other countries. We are already facing a tragedy; we must avoid it becoming a catastrophe.”  
— António Guterres (Secretary-General of the United Nations )

The UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien recently told the UN Security Council that the world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since the United Nations was founded in 1945 with more than 20 million people in four countries — Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria — at risk of starvation and famine. He said, “[W]ithout collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death and many more will suffer and die from disease.” This startling revelation must be an eye-opener for the world community that ought to take strong and urgent action to help fragile countries avert the impending catastrophe.

From ancient Rome to modern times, mankind has witnessed devastating periods of hunger caused by drought, war or misguided politics. During the 20th century, this menace killed nearly 75 million people in China, the Soviet Union, Iran, Cambodia and some other countries. Europe too suffered several famines in the Middle Ages, but its most recent were during World Wars I and II, where parts of Germany, Poland and the Netherlands were left starving under military blockades. In Africa, there have been several famines in recent decades, from Biafra in Nigeria in the 1970s to the Ethiopian famine of 1983-1985, which ushered in a new form of celebrity fundraising and unprecedented media attention on the suffering. The last reported famine in the world was in Somalia in 2011, which killed an estimated 260,000 people.

Now, suddenly, famine is back and this time as the largest humanitarian crisis since the founding of the United Nations. In late February, a famine was declared in South Sudan, and warnings of famine have also recently been issued for Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.

Moreover, in January the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) – a US government-funded organization created in 1985 specifically to predict famines and humanitarian emergencies – estimated that 70 million people affected by conflicts or disasters worldwide will need food assistance in 2017. This number has increased by nearly 50 percent in just the past two years.

What are famines?

‘Famine’ is an emotive word and in the strict sense, it means people are starving on a massive scale. Organizations and aid agencies do not use this word lightly to describe a humanitarian crisis. Famines, in effect, are extreme events in which large populations lack adequate access to food, leading to widespread malnutrition and deaths. More of these deaths are caused by infectious disease than starvation because severe malnutrition compromises human immune systems. According to a 1997 study on hunger strikes, published in the British Medical Journal, when lack of food has led to an 18 percent loss of weight, the body starts undergoing physiological disturbances. This makes people much more susceptible to killer diseases such as measles, or even common conditions such as diarrhoea.

Most major aid agencies — the FAO, the WFP, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, Save the Children UK, CARE International, the European Commission Joint Research Centre and Oxfam  — only describe a crisis as a famine when the situation on the ground reaches level five on the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system according to which famine exists when at least 20 percent of the population in a specific area has extremely limited access to basic food; acute malnutrition exceeds 30 percent; and the death rate exceeds two per 10,000 people per day for the entire population.

People affected by famine may also experience other impacts, including widespread hunger, loss of assets, the breakdown of social support networks, distress migration and destitution.

A manmade disaster

For many years experts believed that famines were caused by a shortfall in food availability. Then, in 1981, Nobel Prize-winning welfare economist and philosopher, Professor Amartya Sen, published his ground-breaking article “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation”. In his essay, Professor Sen showed that famines actually resulted when food was available but some groups could not access it. “Even in those cases in which a famine is accompanied by a reduction in the amount of food available per head, the causal mechanism precipitating starvation has to bring in many variables other than the general availability of food,” he wrote.

Today we recognize famines happen only with some degree of human complicity. Some analysts assert that famines are crimes of either commission or omission, because human decisions and actions determine whether a crisis deteriorates into a full-blown famine.

Famines typically have multiple causes. They can include climatic factors such as drought, economic shocks such as rapid inflation, and violent conflict or other political causes.

 Their impacts are more severe when underlying factors make some groups more vulnerable.

Famines in the 21st CenturyFamines today are not about an overall lack of food. For the world as a whole, food production per person has risen from about 2,220 calories per person per day in the early 1960s to over 2,800 in the 2000s. People die not because the food is unavailable, but more commonly because they can’t afford to buy it.

Famine is often closely connected to war, and in the present example wars are central. Wars destroy transport routes, make it hard to move in search of food and mean that opposing forces use food as a weapon. Mortality during famines may be exacerbated by conflict and displacement. Deliberately cutting off access to food is often a means of war. It is not a coincidence that the threat of famine in South Sudan, northeastern Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia is occurring in the midst of protracted, violent conflicts.

Somalia in east Africa is a clear example. For example, the 2011 famine in Somalia was caused by a severe drought, a dramatic spike in the cost of food and devastating loss of purchasing power, and conflict. These occurred on top of long-term environmental degradation, deteriorating opportunities in agricultural and pastoral livelihoods, and the absence of a central state authority.

One party to the conflict, Al Shabaab, was an armed group that the United States and other countries labelled as a foreign terrorist organization. Al Shabaab controlled people’s movements and access to markets, and excluded or directly threatened many humanitarian agencies.

External donor governments prioritized containing the terrorist threat, and warned that any stolen or diverted aid that ended up in the hands of Al Shabaab would be treated as a criminal offence. These policies made it extremely difficult for humanitarian agencies to assist groups affected by the famine.

This combination of manmade factors thwarted adequate prevention or response measures until the famine declaration provoked a more vigorous response. By then, the number of people being killed by the famine had already peaked. Not surprisingly, the most marginalized groups within Somali society were the worst affected.

Famines are recurring today because once again, conflicts and natural disasters such as drought are converging in vulnerable areas. Shortened recovery cycles between recurrent crises – due partly to climate change – leave ever-larger groups more vulnerable.

Can famines be prevented?

Famines result from cumulative processes we can observe and predict. That means we can prevent them through timely public action. Early warning systems can be used to monitor agricultural production and rainfall trends, commodity markets and price trends, and conflicts. These systems can also track trends in food access, malnutrition or mortality, and labour migration among at-risk populations.

Governments and humanitarian agencies can use this information to prevent or limit famines. Since the 1950s, food aid has been the main tool for responding to famines. Producer countries ship food to countries in crisis, and humanitarian organizations like the World Food Programme deliver it to affected populations.

Ready-to-use therapeutic foods – high-energy pastes typically made from peanuts, oils, sugar and milk powder – have significantly improved treatment of acutely malnourished children. Actions in other sectors, including water and health, can also help the humanitarian community in preventing and responding to famines.

Even when enough resources are available, more must be done to deliver it to people who need it. This means working out measures to ensure access before crises deteriorate into famine. National governments and even rebel groups should renew their commitment to International Humanitarian Law, which guarantees civilians caught in conflict the right to assistance, expressly forbids the use of food as a weapon of warfare and provides support for efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts. Timely action based on early warning can avert major crises and save resources and lives – but it requires political commitment and constant vigilance.


The UN needs US$4.4 billion (S$6.2 billion) by July to avert a catastrophe in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. Here’s an overview of the aid needed in each country and the problems getting it there:


  1. 18.8m people need US$2.1 billion in aid.
  2. A man-made crisis after two years of war between Iran-backed Houthi insurgents and the government backed by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
  3. Aid hampered by continued fighting, lack of rule of law, poor governance and underdevelopment.
  4. A naval embargo, fighting around the port of Aden and air strikes on the port of Hudaydah have severely reduced imports since 2015.
  5. A lack of fuel, insecurity and damage to markets and roads have also prevented supplies from being distributed.
  6. 7.5m people need assistance.
  7. A man-made crisis. A civil war that began in 2013 has forced people to flee, disrupted agriculture, sent prices soaring and cut off aid agencies from the worst-hit areas.
  8. Aid hampered by a lack of rule of law and underdevelopment. Some UN officials have suggested the government has been blocking food aid to certain areas, a claim denied by the authorities.
  9. There have also been reports of humanitarian convoys and warehouses coming under attack or being looted, either by government or rebel forces.
  10. South Sudan announced on March 2 it will raise annual foreign worker visa fees to as much as US$10,000, affecting hundreds of aid workers in the country.


  1. 6.2m people need assistance.
  2. Famine caused by severe drought, which has killed livestock and crops.
  3. Aid hampered by attacks by Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, lack of rule of law and underdevelopment.
  4. Piracy off Somalia’s coast impeded shipments in the past, though these have fallen significantly.


  1. 7.1 m people need assistance.
  2. Attacks by Islamist group Boko Haram since 2009 have displaced two million people from their homes.
  3. Aid curbed by attacks, lack of rule of law and underdevelopment.
  4. Aid cannot reach areas controlled by Boko Haram.
  5. There are allegations of widespread aid theft, which are being investigated by Nigeria’s government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.