The F-word: What is famine?

Oct 18, 2017
11-Minute Read
By Avery Milo Parducci, World Vision

In February of this year, famine was declared in parts of South Sudan. Thanks to the quick humanitarian response from World Vision, other NGOs, and governments, the country is no longer in a declared state of famine. 

This is proof that aid works, and it’s reason to celebrate.  But we can’t rest now. Not with the threat of famine still looming for several countries in Africa.  

In Canada, where most families have enough to eat, it’s easy to become complacent about the idea of hunger.  It’s not uncommon for people to say “I’m starving!” when they’re running late for dinner.

But in the humanitarian world, there are terms we approach with extreme caution. Starving is one of them. And famine is another. 

The threat of famine 

Famine isn’t a term to be used lightly; there’s a lot behind it. It’s a technical term, and is more complex than you think.  First, it’s important that we make a distinction between a food crisis and a famine.

Food crises happen when communities experience a significant shortage of food. Food crisis can become famine, but only when the scarcity of food is so severe, so widespread, it causes large-scale starvation, malnutrition and death. That’s the real definition of famine.

a grandmother and grandchild crouch over parched earth
Adeng, 8, and his grandmother many hours to get to this food distribution site in South Sudan, with only water to sustain them.

Calling a famine 

Before a famine is declared, a country’s situation must be assessed using a set of common international standards, using the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. Food insecurity is measured in a scale of five phases:

    •    IPC-1 is minimal. 

    •    IPC-3 is a crisis. 

    •    IPC-5 is classified as that dreaded F-word, famine.

As you follow a hunger crisis in the news, it must seem like it takes forever for an actual famine to be declared. There’s a reason for that. Famine is the worst-case scenario, and it means that people are already dying.

Reaching IPC-5, or famine, means all of the following:

    •    More than 30% of the population is acutely malnourished.

    •    At least 20% of households face an extreme lack of food.

    •    At least 2 people (or 4 children) out of every 10,000 are dying every day.

The brutal reality 

It’s almost impossible to imagine the words “famine” and “Canada” in the same sentence.  Here’s how those numbers would look, if Canadians were facing famine:

    •    Nearly 11 million people would be acutely malnourished.

    •    More than 2.6 million households would be facing an extreme lack of food.

    •    At least 7,200 people, or 14,400 children, would be dying every single day.

I’ll emphasize it once more: by the time a country reaches the point of famine, people are already dying.  The food crisis that cast its shadow over Somalia from 2010 to 2012 caused more than 260,000 deaths.  Famine was not officially declared until July of 2011. By that point, more than half of those 260,000 people had already died.

We must not wait 

The lesson couldn’t be more clear: we must not wait until the international community makes a famine declaration before we begin responding. Too many lives are at stake.

Although the world helped pull South Sudan back from famine, the threat still lurks there, as well as in Somalia, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria. It’s possible these countries will slip into famine over the coming months.

A baby snuggles into his motherAkir, 10 months, is severely malnourished. Her mother, Adele, walked several hours to reach the World Vision food distribution site in South Sudan, seeking food for Akir and her two other malnourished children. 

It’s true that systems are complex. Food crisis or famine are caused by a variety of factors: conflict, government policies, inflation, climate change, poverty, drought and natural disasters as some key causes. For many African countries facing food crisis, all of these play a factor. 

It’s true that some of these factors can’t easily be controlled. But many of them can. 

When do we say enough is enough? Children are starving, people are dying. When we say this is a crisis, it is already gravely serious. No matter what you call it, this is horrifying and it should not be happening. The world produces more than enough food to nourish the 7.4 billion people living on the planet.
In this day and age, famine is the result of inaction -- and it is preventable. Help us make a Hunger Free world.