11:32 am - Monday May 28, 2012


famineA famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including crop failure, overpopulation, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Every continent in the world has experienced a period of famine throughout history. Many countries continue to have extreme cases of famine.

Emergency measures in relieving famine primarily include providing deficient micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, through fortified sachet powders or directly through supplements. The famine relief model increasingly used by aid groups calls for giving cash or cash vouchers to the hungry to pay local farmers instead of buying food from donor countries, often required by law, as it wastes money on transport costs, but more importantly, it perpetuates the cycle of dependency on foreign imports rather than helping to create real local stability through agricultural abundance. Such independence however does rest upon local conditions of soil, water, temperature and so on.

Long-term measures include investment in modern agriculture techniques, such as… fertilizers and irrigation, which largely eradicated hunger in the developed world. World Bank strictures restrict government subsidies for farmers, and increasing use of fertilizers is opposed by some environmental groups because of its unintended consequences: adverse effects on water supplies and habitat.

Causes of Famine

Definitions of famines are based on three different categories – these include food supply-based, food consumption-based and mortality-based definitions. Some definitions of famines are:
Blix – Widespread food shortage leading to significant rise in regional death rates.
Brown and Eckholm – Sudden, sharp reduction in food supply resulting in widespread hunger.
Scrimshaw – Sudden collapse in level of food consumption of large numbers of people.
Ravallion – Unusually high mortality with unusually severe threat to food intake of some segments of a population.
Cuny – A set of conditions that occurs when large numbers of people in a region cannot obtain sufficient food, resulting in widespread, acute malnutrition.

Effects of Famine

A woman, a man and a child, all three dead from starvation. Russia, 1921.

The demographic impacts of famine are sharp. Mortality is concentrated among children and the elderly. A consistent demographic fact is that in all recorded famines, male mortality exceeds female, even in those populations (such as northern India and Pakistan) where there is a normal times male longevity advantage. Reasons for this may include greater female resilience under the pressure of malnutrition, and possibly female’s naturally higher percentage of body fat. Famine is also accompanied by lower fertility. Famines therefore leave the reproductive core of a population—adult women—lesser affected compared to other population categories, and post-famine periods are often characterized a “rebound” with increased births. Even though the theories of Thomas Malthus would predict that famines reduce the size of the population commensurate with available food resources, in fact even the most severe famines have rarely dented population growth for more than a few years. The mortality in China in 1958–61, Bengal in 1943, and Ethiopia in 1983–85 was all made up by a growing population over just a few years. Of greater long-term demographic impact is emigration: Ireland was chiefly depopulated after the 1840s famines by waves of emigration.

Famine strikes Sub-Saharan African countries the hardest, but with exhaustion of food resources, overdrafting of groundwater, wars, internal struggles, and economic failure, famine continues to be a worldwide problem with hundreds of millions of people suffering. These famines cause widespread malnutrition and impoverishment; The famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s had an immense death toll, although Asian famines of the 20th century have also produced extensive death tolls. Modern African famines are characterized by widespread destitution and malnutrition, with heightened mortality confined to young children.
A starving child during the 1869 famine in Algeria.

Relief technologies including immunization, improved public health infrastructure, general food rations and supplementary feeding for vulnerable children, has provided temporary mitigation to the mortality impacts of famines, while leaving their economic consequences unchanged, and not solving the underlying issue of too large a regional population relative to food production capability. Humanitarian crises may also arise from genocide campaigns, civil wars, refugee flows and episodes of extreme violence and state collapse, creating famine conditions among the affected populations.

Despite repeated stated intentions by the world’s leaders to end hunger and famine, famine remains a chronic threat in much of Africa and Asia. In July 2005, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network labelled Niger with emergency status, as well as Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe. In January 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 11 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia were in danger of starvation due to the combination of severe drought and military conflicts. In 2006, the most serious humanitarian crisis in Africa is in Sudan’s region Darfur.

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