For centuries, famine has been at the forefront of poverty and global health issues in the poorer regions of the world. Around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on global food security contributing to this figure. Maintaining a diet that provides sufficient energy (caloric) and a diverse range of nutrients is crucial for optimal health. Undernourishment, particularly among children and mothers, poses a significant risk factor for mortality and other health-related consequences.
What Is Famine?
Famines are classified through the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC helps determine when a crisis becomes a famine. There are three conditions to meet this classification:
- “one in five households faces an extreme food shortage”
- more than 30% of people struggle with acute malnourishment
- “death rates exceed two deaths for every 10,000 people per day.”
There are also means to classify “great” (100,000 deaths) and “catastrophic” famines (1 million deaths). Unfortunately, this target used to be constantly met throughout time, until the 1990s (when everything changed). Between 1870 and 1880, the death toll from famines stood at 15 million. This would rise and fall but would remain around the 10 million mark until the 1930s when the figure reached 20 million. During the mid-century, this figure remained persistently high.
From the 1940s right up to the 1980s, the figure flatlined at just below 15 million. By the 1980s, there was a shear drop, despite the shocking famine in Ethiopia that claimed more than 1 million lives alone. The 1990s had a similar toll. While these figures are far from positive, the entire world has been making progress in winning the war on hunger in recent times
The Causes of Famine
Professor Alex De Waal specializes in the study of famines. As the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation (WPF), De Waal has an intimate relationship with its various causes and solutions. The WPF makes the case that the reason famines have receded is mainly due to democracy and political freedoms.
When famines have taken place, many argue that the forces behind such events were man-made and deliberate, rather than environmental and uncontrolled. The WPF claims that the connective tissue between famines in Yemen, Cambodia and Ethiopia, is the existence of dictators and conflict. Armed conflict and dictators disrupt food systems and uproot communities and livelihoods through arbitrary seizure and forced removal. When this happens, infrastructure left behind is of no use and communities become reliant on effective aid.
Foreign Aid and Famine
Famine continues to affect many communities, including Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, and when it does strike, the swiftness of aid delivery becomes crucial. The World Food Programme (WFP) is one of the known organizations that make efforts to deliver aid during famines. The WFP is the world’s largest NGO catering to the needs of those in desperate need of food. It has had great success in preventing the maturity of food scarcity problems into famine in Afghanistan, helping 15 million people access nourishment and safety.
Oxfam is another organization involved in preventative and reactive measures. Distributing food, providing clean water and encouraging proper sanitation are all part of the organization’s efforts in the war against hunger. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) shares optimism about lower death rates and the humanitarian efforts involved in securing such results.
Famines have adverse long-term health effects. Studies have shown that survivors are “hungrier, sicker and less well” off for longer than the period of famine, according to Global Hunger Index. Malnutrition trends have not been as positive as famine trends, and global levels of acute malnutrition have been rising since 2008.
Signs of Hope
Efforts to combat famine and improve global food security have shown progress in recent years, with organizations like the World Food Programme and Oxfam playing a vital role in delivering aid to those in need. So far, the aforementioned “catastrophic” famines have been eliminated and “great” famines have near vanished. If projections are correct, then the world could be free of all famines by 2030. However, challenges remain in addressing malnutrition trends and ensuring long-term health and well-being for affected populations. Continued support and collaborative actions are crucial to sustaining positive advancements in the fight against hunger.
– James Durbin