A scene of refugees suffering from famine and trying to obtain food aid in Somalia in the summer of 1992 (Associated Press)

Famine is a severe, long-term hunger that affects a large proportion of the population in a country or region, causing death as a result of high rates of acute malnutrition among individuals.

Famines occur for two main reasons:

The first:

resulting from natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, drought, unseasonal cold, insect outbreaks, plant diseases, and others.

The second:

human, due to wars and attacks. Wars are the first and most common cause of famines, as they result in the destruction of crops intentionally or as a result of fighting, or blocking roads, disrupting supply lines, and preventing the arrival and distribution of food by combatants.

The relationship between famine and food shortages

The prevailing hypothesis for the occurrence of famines until the 1980s was a decline in food production, which led to the fact that famines accompanied by this shortage were not classified as “famines” until long after they occurred and the situation worsened.

In the late 20th century, the Indian economist, Amartya Sen, conducted a study on famines, trying to refute the hypothesis of a direct relationship between decreased food production and the occurrence of famines.

He proved that the most likely cause of famines is what he called “failure of entitlement,” and that the occurrence of famines is not necessarily the result of a decrease in food production.

The concept of “entitlement” here means the human right to obtain a sufficient amount of goods and services and the ability to choose among them.

A person's "entitlement" depends on several factors, including changing commodity prices, the imposition of new laws, the infestation of agricultural crops by pests, or the disruption of food distribution due to war. Thus, a segment of society can be exposed to famine without there being a food shortage.

For example, the Bengal famine of 1943 is considered evidence of this hypothesis, as although food production decreased in 1943, its percentage was slightly higher than in other previous years. Food production in 1943 increased by 13% compared to what it was in 1941.

The main cause of the Bengal famine of 1943 was inflation resulting from the war, as the prices of agricultural grains rose by 300%, compared to only a 30% increase in the wages of agricultural workers, which led to this class of workers being severely harmed, and many died of hunger, and while the famine swept the countryside Bengal, West Bengal's capital Kolkata was not affected to the same extent.

The most prominent famines around the world

Russian famine of 1912

The famine began as a result of a natural disaster caused by a severe drought, but Russia's participation in World War I and a number of civil wars in the early twentieth century led to a worsening of the situation and a severe famine.

The war, which lasted for 4 years (1914-1918), resulted in property damage, the imposition of an economic blockade, and the forced seizure of agricultural lands and crops in return for a small fee given to farmers.

These repercussions led to a decline in production rates and food shortages due to severe drought, as the famine reached its peak and claimed the lives of 5 million people.

A scene of children who were victims of the famine in Russia in 1921 (Associated Press)

The Levant famine of 1915

The famine struck the Levant during World War I, especially large areas of Syria, which included the provinces of Aleppo, Beirut, and the population of Mount Lebanon.

The government confiscated property, agricultural land, and crops to serve the war effort, and many young farmers fled their lands to escape military service.

The famine claimed the lives of nearly a third of the population of Mount Lebanon and between 60,000 and 80,000 people in the city of Aleppo.

Bengal famine of 1943

The Bengal Famine was one of the worst disasters in India and South Asia in the 20th century, when India was under British rule.

After the fall of Myanmar and Singapore to Japan during World War II in 1942, rice exports from these countries stopped.

The cyclone that occurred in October 1942 caused damage to the rice crop, after which rice imports from Myanmar to India stopped, which represented 15%, in addition to the loss of rice exports from Bengal to Sri Lanka.

Despite all this, these reasons did not essentially lead to the Bengal famine in British India, as the harvest was sufficient for the Bengali people, but the circumstances of the war were what led to the situation turning into a disastrous famine.

The British colonial forces stored food supplies to supply the fighting forces for fear of a Japanese invasion, and also exported boats, carts, and elephants, which harmed the Bengali fishermen and workers and prevented them from resuming their trade, which represented their main source of income.

All of these policies harmed the country and led to a significant rise in inflation rates, in addition to the government's failure to provide relief aid, which led to a catastrophic famine that affected more than 58% of rural families.

This famine lasted for 8 months (from March to October 1943) and its effects extended for several more months, and claimed the lives of about 3 million people as a result of malnutrition and the spread of diseases and epidemics.

Moroccan famine of 1944

The famine occurred during the French colonization of Morocco, which plundered the country's resources. This year was called the "Year of Hunger", as well as the year of the "Bon" (voucher), because colonialism imposed the provision of food supplies through limited purchase vouchers.

The famine lasted for a whole year.

Colonialism imposed a protection system on the country and committed the most heinous crimes against Moroccans. It drained the country’s wealth and exploited it for the benefit of the war effort. It placed ownership of agricultural lands in the hands of the French colonists, and imposed an austerity policy on the original land owners.

The rations imposed by colonialism did not meet people's needs, and this situation prompted many people in several areas to eat some grasses and plants, as well as locusts.

This famine left about 50,000 dead and caused diseases and epidemics.

Vietnam famine of 1945

The Japanese army entered North and Central Vietnam in 1940 with an agreement with French colonialism, which led to Vietnam being subjected to dual colonialism.

During French colonialism, hunger was afflicting Vietnam, but it did not reach its peak until the entry of Japanese colonialism, which led to a severe famine that affected about 32 provinces.

In 1945, Japanese colonialism destroyed rice farms in favor of growing jute and producing materials to serve its army at the expense of the Vietnamese people. The Japanese also stored rice for local consumption and used it as fuel for power plants.

The famine in Vietnam led to the death of about two million people, according to local estimates, while international documents estimate the number of victims at one million people, or about 8% of the total population.

1992 Somalia famine

Somalia is one of the countries most vulnerable to constant famine, due to the nature of its dry and desert climate and the scarcity of rainfall, which leads to the death of many livestock, the damage of many agricultural crops, and the limited availability of water in rivers and wells.

But it was also not spared from being exposed to famines due to repeated civil wars, armed conflicts, and recurring chaos in the country, which prevents the establishment of a strong, stable government that contributes to developing a strong strategy for the country’s development.

In 1992, a famine occurred, considered one of the worst in the twentieth century. It plunged Somalia into a harsh civil war after the overthrow of the regime of President Mohamed Siad Barre at the hands of clan warlords. The country quickly descended into famine, thousands of livestock died and diseases spread, as a result of which about 300 people died. A thousand people were killed.

One of the victims of famine caused by wars in India at the beginning of the twentieth century (Getty)

This disaster prompted the United States of America and several countries to send military forces in accordance with a UN resolution under the title of the “Restore Hope” campaign to protect citizens and supervise the arrival of food and medical relief materials to them.

At the end of 2016, the United Nations warned of the risk of a severe famine in the country, and estimated that about half of the population needed urgent support to avoid the effects of the severe drought affecting the country at that time.

Sudan famine of 1998

In 1998, the war in Sudan (especially in South Sudan before it separated and became a state in 2011) led to a famine that led to the death of thousands of people.

The parties to the conflict (the Sudanese government and the armed militias opposing it) faced accusations of contributing to the aggravation of the crisis by looting food and preventing relief aid from reaching the people.

The country was subjected to a fierce drought, delayed rains, and famine intensified, leading to the death of about 70,000 people and the displacement of more than 72,000 from rural areas.

In the same year, the United Nations estimated that about 2.5 million people in South Sudan (out of a total Sudanese population estimated at 27 million) were at risk of famine.

In 2017, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Food Program announced that parts of South Sudan are suffering from severe famine as a result of the civil war, the ongoing conflict in the region, successive economic crises, high food prices, low agricultural production, and high inflation rates. Which exceeded 800%.

Sudan famine 2023

Since mid-April 2023, violent fighting has broken out in Sudan between the Rapid Support Forces led by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) and the Sudanese army forces led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, which has claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people and displaced more than 8 million. It is one of the major displacement operations in the world.

About 25 million people faced the threat of famine due to lack of food and water, and about 18 million people suffered from acute hunger and acute food insecurity, including 5 million in serious condition.

About 3.5 million children also suffered from malnutrition, and malnutrition rates rose, and the Sudanese found themselves on the brink of a humanitarian disaster over time.

The poor conditions have led to the spread of infectious diseases and epidemics, and outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and cholera have been reported.

International organizations have warned of the worsening situation and the recurrence of a fierce famine like the one that struck Sudan in previous years.

Gaza Strip famine of 2023

The Gaza Strip suffered from a fierce famine due to the Israeli aggression that began on October 7, 2023. Since the beginning of the war, the occupation has tightened the siege - which it had previously imposed on the Strip since 2007 - which led to the depletion of all food supplies.

In addition to the death toll as a result of the bombing and ground incursion exceeding 29,000 martyrs since the start of the war - most of whom are women and children - the Israeli occupation decided to impose a stifling siege and used the weapon of starvation against the Palestinians in Gaza.

The humanitarian crisis reached its peak in the north of the Gaza Strip and then spread to its south, and residents suffered from severe shortages of food and drinking water (even contaminated water) after the occupation cut off water supplies and a fuel shortage that led to the closure of wells.

Bakeries were also closed due to the severe shortage of fuel and flour, and the residents of the Gaza Strip have relied on eating canned goods since the beginning of the war to satisfy their hunger despite their scarcity. They resorted to grinding animal feed, and even this feed ran out, and severe hunger also spread to animals and led to the death of many of them.

According to UNICEF indicators and international organizations, about 90% of children under the age of five in the Gaza Strip are infected with one or more infectious diseases, and they have warned of a sharp increase in deaths among children as the war continues.

Source: Al Jazeera + websites