Famine Explained: Definition, causes and facts

At five years old, Shamha was diagnosed as malnourished and given a pink wristband to show people at Mazraq refugee camp in Yemen that she has not been getting enough to eat. The little girl had been sick since she was a baby but thanks to the high-energy food she received at the camp, she made a slow recovery. Like Shamha, 2.4 million children in Yemen under the age of five are at risk of suffering from acute malnutrition.

Shamha received nutritious food to recover from acute malnutrition

Today, approximately 690 million people are experiencing chronic hunger while 20 million live in countries such Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia that are on the brink of famine. But what is famine and how can we stop it?

Here’s What You Need to Know:

1. What is famine?

2. What are the main causes of famine?

3. Which countries are on the brink of famine?

4. Who is most at risk when a famine strikes?

5. What is UNHCR doing to help?


What is famine?

Famine is a situation in which a substantial proportion of the population of a country or region are unable to access adequate food, resulting in widespread acute malnutrition and loss of life by starvation and disease.

While many countries worldwide face food security crises, famine is only declared when certain conditions are met. The United Nations uses a five-phase scale known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) to assess a country’s food security situation. A famine classification is the highest on the IPC scale (Phase 5) and occurs when at least 20 percent of the population face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent – meaning that people experience the most extreme and visible form of undernutrition –and two out of 1,000 people die from starvation on a daily basis.

baby getsting checked

What are the main causes of famine?

Famine can stem from a combination of multiple factors, such as conflict, displacement, chronic poverty, food insecurity, natural disasters and climate change.

Wars and conflict are usually the primary drivers of famine as they lead to forced displacement, disrupt people’s traditional ways of accessing food and income, hinder humanitarian access and push economies into a long-term decline. Natural disasters - such as droughts, flooding and cyclones - and the effects of climate change can also lead to famine, jeopardizing agriculture and livestock activities in regions where the majority of the population live off the land.

The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the risk of famine in countries facing severe humanitarian crises. Lockdowns and restrictions of movement to curb the spread of the virus are driving entire communities deeper into hunger and destitution, threatening to push an additional 121 million people into acute food insecurity. 

displacement crises lead to famines

Which countries are on the brink of famine?

Yemen, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and South Sudan are all on the brink of famine. This includes more than 20 million people who are at immediate risk of acute food insecurity – 4 million of whom are refugees and asylum seekers.

In Yemen, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, 7 out of 10 people are food insecure.  Ten million face acute food shortages and soaring food prices threaten access to available food. According to the UN Refugee Agency, nearly 40 percent of the most vulnerable displaced families do not have access to any income and 37 percent are already eating less. 

In the Sahel region, escalating conflict and the effects of climate change have forced millions of people into hunger - at least 15 percent of Burkina Faso’s population is currently food insecure and 4.3 million people in Nigeria’s north-east region are suffering from acute malnutrition. Droughts, conflict and the pandemic have also impacted South Sudan, with more than 6.5 million people in need of food assistance.

Kenyan refugee child

Who is most at risk when a famine strikes?

Those without adequate nutrition are at most risk during a famine. Among them, displaced children - especially those under 3 years - and pregnant and nursing women are particularly vulnerable.

Children with acute malnutrition are deprived of essential vitamins and minerals required for their proper growth, making them prone to disease, severe developmental delays and even death. In famine-like conditions, millions of children are pulled out of school and sent to work, begging on the streets or eating just once a day. As of November 2020, an estimated 11 million children under five were facing extreme hunger or starvation. 

Displaced women are also disproportionately impacted during famines as they often face barriers to access work opportunities and are at heightened risk of gender-based violence, forced labor and early marriage. Malnourished pregnant or nursing mothers are particularly vulnerable to deadly diseases and pregnancy complications.

Nigerian grandmother and child

What is UNHCR doing to help?

The UN Refugee Agency is working with partners to deliver cash-based assistance and lifesaving supplies - such as clean water, food and sanitation items - to vulnerable refugee and internally-displaced families struggling with food insecurity so that they can cover their most basic needs. Some of UNHCR’s activities in refugee camps also include nutritious interventions to ensure people have access to clean water and nutritious food - especially women, children and other vulnerable groups. UNHCR also helps people suffering from malnutrition to access appropriate medical treatment and works with local authorities to identify livelihood opportunities that promote self-reliance. 

How you can help people on the brink of famine…

Monthly giving is the most convenient, effective and efficient way you can help people struggling with food shortages during the coronavirus pandemic. Start making a lifesaving difference today. Please become USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor.

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