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close this bookDrought and Famine (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1994, 53 p.)
close this folderPART 2 Famine
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIncidence of famine
View the documentDefinitions
View the documentCauses of famine
View the documentVulnerability and coping strategies
View the documentFamine early warning systems
View the documentMeasures to maintain food security
View the documentSelecting particular interventions
View the documentFood aid
View the documentSummary

Incidence of famine

Famines have occurred periodically in most, if not all, societies throughout history. Chronicles of ancient civilizations in India, Egypt, Western Asia, China, Greece and Rome record famines in these and other parts of the world. In the Middle Ages famine was a frequent occurrence in Europe. For example, historians estimate that during the 900 year period from the 10th Century to the 18th, there were 89 “general” famines in France and hundreds more “local” famines. Since then famines in Western Europe have become markedly less frequent as a result of agricultural innovation and the Industrial Revolution, though the 1846-51 “Great Famine” that occurred in Ireland was possibly one of the most catastrophic. The most recent “famine” to occur in Western Europe developed in the Netherlands during the winter of 1944 when a military stalemate between the advancing Allied Forces and the retreating German Army created severe food shortages in the main urban areas and significantly increased mortality.

Estimates of the total deaths directly attributable to a particular famine are notoriously poor, often prone to exaggeration, and frequently a matter of dispute. Bearing this in mind Box 4 describes some of the most severe famines that have occurred in modern history. By comparison, excess mortality in the Ethiopian Famine of 1984-85 is estimated at between 400,000 to 500,000, Rahmato 1991), though a figure often used by the media at that time was “over 1 million”.

Box 4


Ireland 1845-1849
Total excess mortality 1.0-1.25 million

This famine was caused by a combination of crop disease (potato blight), and the British Government’s reluctance to fund substantial relief measures. It coincided with a bitter struggle within the British Parliament between agricultural/rural “protectionists” and urban/industrial “free-traders” over the so-called Corn Laws which restricted the importation of foreign cereals to protect British farmers from cheap imports. The potato blight first appeared in Ireland in September, 1845 at a time when approximately half the population of 8 million were dependent upon potatoes. Wheat, barley and oats were the other staples, a significant proportion of which were traditionally exported to Britain. The doctrine that “free trade” should not be impeded or disrupted severely limited the effectiveness of the Government’s response. Exports of cereals to Britain drawn by greater demand in the industrial cities were allowed to continue throughout the famine. Gratuitous distribution of relief food was allowed reluctantly and only in remote areas where it was unlikely to conflict with private traders. Only those owning less than 0.1 hectares of land were eligible for government relief. The famine and its after effects had a profound effect on Irish society. Emigration (principally to North America) increased dramatically, with the younger and more dynamic tending to leave. By 1881 the combined effects of famine mortality and emigration had reduced the total population by half. The pressure for national independence was given considerable impetus by the famine.

Soviet Union 1932-34
Total excess mortality approximately 5 million

This famine is considered largely attributable to Stalin’s forced collectivization programme. This programme extracted agricultural products from the peasantry, partly to feed the state bureaucracy and urban workers but also to pay for the rapid expansion of the industrial sector through the export of grain in exchange for foreign machinery. The programme was aggressively implemented by Communist Party officials who viewed the peasantry as kulaks, (ie. conservatives who were uncommitted to the revolution) and resulted in production targets that were unrealistically high and underestimated or ignored the consumption needs of the peasantry. The searching of houses and barns and the seizure of any grain found was a common feature of this period. Foreign assistance was not allowed into the country to relieve the situation.

Bengal 1943-46
Total excess mortality over 3 million

The interplay of war with Japan, a modest reduction in production in Bengal (much of which now forms part of Bangladesh) due to cyclones and floods and the ineptitude of the British administration caused this famine. Burma, a traditional source of rice supplies, was invaded by the Japanese in 1942. Because of the war footing of the economy, employment and wages in urban areas were higher than normal. A cyclone in October 1942 reduced production of the important winter aman rice crop and reduced the employment available to agricultural laborers. As a result of these factors and the uncertainty created by them, rice prices rose dramatically. Wholesale prices in May 1943 were 380% above the level in May 1942. Agricultural laborers were unable to afford these prices as were the rural artisans (barbers, weavers, fisherman, etc.) whose income was partly dependent on the disposable income of the laborers. As a result the artisans became destitute and, after the agricultural laborers, experienced the greatest increases in mortality. Under more normal circumstances, the Famine Codes would have come into effect providing of a combination of works projects and food distributions. This was not done, indeed the famine was never officially declared, largely because the administration felt that there was insufficient food available locally to supply such schemes. The reallocation of shipping to enable food to be imported was not approved due to higher priority being given to military needs. The famine and the criticism of the British administration fueled the development of Indian nationalism. Independence was achieved in 1947.

China 1958-61
Total excess mortality 16.5-29.5 million

This was possibly the most catastrophic famine in recorded history. Though drought and floods in different parts of the country did contribute, the famine was largely the result of policy failures associated with Mao tse-Tung’s “Great Leap Forward”. The Great Leap Forward launched in 1957 involved the forced mobilization of the peasantry as part of a crash programme to increase industrial production. Aggregate national grain production fell by 25-30%.

Politically motivated exaggeration of crop production statistics and the fear of local leaders communicating their problems up the administrative hierarchy obscured the severity of the situation from national leaders. Policies on the production, distribution and foreign trade in grains were not altered and special relief programmes were not launched.

Surviving on roots and leaves in Matekaga, Chad. (UNDRO News, Jul/Aug 1985.)