Occurrence of famines in the world

Famines have occurred throughout human history in all parts of the world although the intensity and frequency have declined considerably except in Africa. Although famines predate written history, available records show that they have been recorded since 400 B.C.

Although there is no universally accepted definition, famines or severe hunger occur due to a combination of failure of food production or distribution, rising food prices, unemployment and depletion of assets which impoverish victims leading to sharply increased mortality due to starvation and associated diseases. Thus famines are characterized by excess deaths, social disruption and economic chaos. Here are a few illustrative examples of famines around the world.

In Medieval Europe, 43 million people died in part due to famine and Black Death (bubonic plague of 1345-1348); over one million or 12 percent of the people died during the Irish Famine of the 1840s and an equal number migrated, more than three million people died in the great Bengal famine of 1943, 20 million died in the China famine between 1959 and 1961; more than 1.5 million Biafrans died during the Nigerian civil war between 1967 and 1970 and between 1 and 22 million Africans died in the Sahel Belt in the famines of the 1970s and 1980s. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), about 4 million people died between 1998 and 2004 because of war and famine.    

Famines are the outcome of a lengthy process in which people lose access to food  due to a combination of natural and biological forces (floods, droughts, pests or crop diseases) and human actions (government policies or wars – Netherlands lost about 10,000 people during the winter of 1944-45 when the occupying Nazi blocked the import of food supplies).

Further, famines entail more than severe food shortages and distribution constraints. Unemployment and loss of assets have been known to contribute to famines. In short famines are caused by a combination of natural, political, economic and biological factors.

Natural and biological causes include drought, excessive rains and floods, severe cold weather and pests such as locusts and plant diseases. These natural causes drastically reduce food production.

Human causes are mainly political or policies. Government actions may contribute to famines in various ways. Warfare may include blockade or destruction of food stuffs in granaries or in the field or constrain the availability of factors of production such as labor or fertilizers and result in reduced food productivity and total production.

Corruption, misguided economic policies and mismanagement in handling food supplies as well as trade policies impact on food availability. The collectivization of state farms in 1932-33 in the Soviet Union and trade policy in the Union between England and Ireland in the 1840s resulted in famines. During the Irish Famine, Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the English treasury insisted that the English trade policy between England and Ireland would continue uninterrupted so that massive foodstuffs would continue to be shipped from Ireland to England.

In the closing years of the twentieth century, the English government apologized for the Great Famine because of the view held by many that the English policy under the Union was responsible for the catastrophe.

Earlier, the Great Famine in the Middle Ages between 1315 and 1322 coincided with some of the worst years of war between England and Scotland. During that period the price of grain rose sharply affecting the peasants with meager resources.

Taxation also played a part because the Great Famine occurred during two periods of high taxation in the 1290s and 1330s. Accordingly, “Medieval kings, should they wish to halt the horseman of Famine riding among their subjects, had to halt the horseman of War that they had unleashed upon their enemies” (John Aberth, 2001).   

There are increasing voices arguing that globalization has contributed to famines because severe shortages are not a function of scarcity of food but of a global structure that has affected production and consumption of staples through the impoverishment especially of farmers.

Specifically, African famines still occur even in the midst of food abundance at the national, regional or global levels. Recent famines have been recorded in Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Liberia, Mozambique, Niger, Somalia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Regionally famines have occurred in the Horn, Southern and the Sahel parts of Africa leading to famines and severe malnutrition (Philippe Hugon, 2008).

War has played a significant role in Africa’s famines. The famines between 1983 and 1985 in Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Sudan were caused by drought and internal wars.

Famine still looms as a potential threat in the 21st century particularly in Africa due to many factors including conflict, export-oriented growth policies, ecological deterioration and demographic pressure.

 Efforts to avoid severe hunger and famine at the international level go as far back as the days of the League of Nations founded in the 1920s. Since then the right to food has been adopted and incorporated into international documents. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 recognized the right to food as a universal human right, meaning that every man, woman and child must have access at all times to food, or to means for the procurement of adequate food for a healthy and active life.

The right to food was incorporated into the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in 1966. Countries that have ratified the Covenant are legally bound by its provisions.   

The principle that all human rights are interrelated and interdependent has also been acknowledged which means that the right to food cannot be implemented in isolation from other human rights such as the right to education, to work, to health, to development, to freedom of assembly and association.

The right to food is increasingly being integrated into national constitutions, such as the Uganda Constitution of 1995, and legislation. Despite these efforts at national and international levels, close to one billion people are not enjoying the right to food.

In 2000 and 2005, the international community set a human rights-based agenda to eliminate hunger and poverty in the world and set the target date of 2015 to reduce both in half.

In its resolution of September 27, 2007, the Human Rights Council decided, inter alia, to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in order to promote the full realization of the right to food and the adoption of measures at the national, regional and international levels and to examine ways and means of overcoming existing and emerging obstacles to the realization of the right to food.

In carrying out the work, the Rapporteur is expected to work closely with states, intergovernmental and non-governmental organs and to report the findings to the Human Rights Council.

Notwithstanding, ending famines is a political task to be undertaken at national, regional and international levels supplemented by technical know-how which is known and is easily accessible. In the end, it is the genuine political will that will end famines.