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What is famine, and how can we stop it?

By Chris Hufstader
Tabitha Nyawich Kong sits with her daughter and some malnourished cattle in Nyal, South Sudan. They fled to Nyal after being chased away from their home by fighting, and sought shelter in a vast swamp before arriving in Nyal. “Most of our animals died on the way,” she says, adding that this is the second time she has fled her home due to fighting. “I do not think I will go back again until I am sure all is well again and for some time.” Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Oxfam

Famine is in the news these days, sadly, and you may be wondering: What exactly is a famine and what can we do to stop it? 

Millions of people are at risk of starvation and death in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Organizations like Oxfam and the UN are struggling to find the resources to respond to the catastrophic humanitarian situations in these countries in an attempt to head off outright famine. 

If you are wondering “what is a famine anyway?” here are a few things you need to know.

Famine is not just a lack of food

A famine is defined by a widespread food shortage situation where one in five homes experience “an extreme lack of food and other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” More than 30 percent of people are “acutely malnourished” and two out of every 10,000 people die from starvation. This set of conditions is the most severe case in a range of classifications monitored by something called the “Integrated Food Security Phase Classification” (IPC) that tracks the availability of food for people and helps governments and aid organizations to anticipate a crisis before people experience famine, what the IPC calls Phase 5. (Phases 2-4 are not very nice situations either, by the way, and as you can see in this graphic, when people get to the famine stage, they typically have few or no resources to sustain them.)

What causes famine?

So why are we seeing famine and near-famine conditions now? In Nigeria, it’s because conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military has prevented farmers from growing any food in some areas for almost four years. Civil war in South Sudan and Yemen has also displaced families, and cut off food supplies, as well as people’s access to aid. A lengthy, serious drought in Somalia has killed off most of the crops and livestock, the main assets for many families. The situation in Somalia is compounded by climate change and the effects of long-term conflict, which continues to make it difficult to get help to some of the hardest hit communities.

Famine is a political scandal, there is no excuse for it. Famine typically occurs due to what the political scientist Alex de Waal calls a “catastrophic breakdown in government capacity or willingness to do what [is] known to be necessary to prevent famine.” When governments fail to prevent or end conflict, or help families prevent food shortages brought on by any reason, they fail their own people.

If we wait until a famine is declared to respond, it’s too late

The conflict in South Sudan started in 2013, so it’s no surprise famine was declared there in Unity State in early 2017, and that people in these areas continue to struggle to survive in near-famine conditions. The conflict in Nigeria is going on eight years now. Aid groups like Oxfam and UN agencies (including the Famine Early Warning System) have been warning the world about these deteriorating situations for some time: Humanitarian organizations have been seeking funds to head off a famine, but without the resources and successful efforts to end wars and help people withstand drought, we now have 30 million people in four countries without enough food. We (governments, the UN, aid organizations) know what to do, because the world has been successfully fighting famine for more than a century. In 2011, more than 250,000 people in Somalia lost their lives when the world ignored repeated warnings after the failure of rains in the region. We should not wait until the situation becomes really dire, with people (many of them children) starving and dying; we need to raise awareness and mobilize support months and years earlier. 

What Oxfam is doing

Women on Panyijar County, South Sudan, pump water from a well constructed by Oxfam. Oxfam provided clean water to 10,000 famine-affected people in this area over the last year. Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Oxfam

You can see a more detailed explanation of our activities in Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Somalia on our hunger and famine crises page.

Working to prevent famine

Oxfam is urgently seeking funds to help communities that are facing dangerous levels of hunger, whether due to chronic poverty, drought, or conflict. Even during normal times, most farming families in sub-Saharan Africa struggle to find enough food during the growing months. This is the rainy season, so delivering food and water is even more challenging as many roads become unpassable.

In countries experiencing conflict, we are are advocating for measures to protect humanitarian access to people requiring assistance, and find ways to end the fighting that is pushing so many people into hunger.

We are also advocating for more international funds that can help people survive the current crisis, and develop the means to withstand the next one.

Oxfam is advocating for governments to invest in programs that will help farming communities become more productive, and survive dry times on their own.

Millions of people on the brink of starvation. Meet a few of the individuals working hard to overcome hunger, and find out how you can help.

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