What is famine? Definition, facts and how to help

Updated Jun 15, 2021
We are living in a global crisis. The novel coronavirus has exposed the many weaknesses of our systems, making millions of people more vulnerable. Among the challenges we’re already facing in the wake of the pandemic, even here in Canada, is food insecurity.

However, that is not a new issue to millions of people around the world. It is estimated that more than 700 million people lived with severe food insecurity in 2018. Of that number, 135 million people face chronic food insecurity, and by the end of 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they could be pushed to the brink of starvation and possibly famine.

Throughout history, famine has been experienced in several parts of the world, and most recently in South Sudan, Somalia and the DR Congo. It’s hard to believe that with all the advances we’ve made as a society, millions still live in the looming threat of famine.

Definition of famine

Famine is a term we should approach with extreme caution; 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 and widespread, it causes large-scale starvation, malnutrition and death.

A teenage boy riding on a donkey carrying a plastic container.
The lack of food and the deterioration of local economy due to droughts is forcing children out of school in Cunene Provinces, in Southern Angola. Ndjiole, 16, should be at school. Instead he was forced to drop out and leave home looking from green pasture and water for the cattle, the only means the family of 17 has to survive. He has been away from his family for six months now. Photo: Antonio Matimbe

Declaring 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:
  • Phase 1 (Minimal): households can meet essential food without engaging in unusual and unsustainable strategies to access food and income.
  • Phase 2 (Stressed): households have access to a minimum amount of food but are not able to afford essential non-food expenditures without engaging in “stress-coping strategies”.
  • Phase 3 (Crisis): households have major gaps in food nutrition that lead to acute malnutrition.
  • Phase 4 (Emergency): households have large food nutrition gaps leading to high acute malnutrition and excess mortality, or resort to emergency strategies to mitigate food shortage.
  • Phase 5 (Famine): households have an extreme lack of food, leading to starvation, extremely acute malnutrition, destitution and death.
As you follow a hunger crisis in the news, it can seem like it takes a long time for an actual famine to be declared. There’s a reason for that. Famine is the worst-case scenario, and it means that there is already loss of life. Reaching Phase 5, or famine, means all the following are true:
  • 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.
A World Vision staff in South Sudan measures the width of a baby's arm.
COVID-19 continues to pose more danger of malnutrition to children in South Sudan. Photo: Scovia Faida Charles

The brutal reality of famine

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.
The food crisis that cast its shadow over Somalia from 2010 to 2012, for example, 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.

How to help combat hunger and famine

The lesson couldn’t be clearer: 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 in 2017, the threat still lurks there, as well as in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti.

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

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

If hunger was already a serious issue prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this health crisis has accentuated the problem and will possibly roll back years of progress in that area. You can get involved in World Vision’s work combating hunger and food insecurity by sponsoring a child or by making a donation.

A Venezuelan migrant woman inside her tent with her two children.
Maria right, lives in Villa del Rosario, Colombia with two of her children. She has relied on food vouchers from World Vision to survive since fleeing hunger in Venezuela. Photo: Chris Huber

By Avery Milo Parducci, World Vision
Edited by Tatiana Almeida, World Vision Canada

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