Famine is a widespread severe shortage of food that leads to malnutrition, starvation, and death. It is the most serious level of food crisis declared only when food shortages lead to widespread mortality rates. Famine is caused by a variety of factors including drought and conflict, but it is predictable and preventable.  

Is there a famine right now?

Right now in 2023 there is no declared famine, but there is a global food emergency affecting over 30 million people that could escalate into famine if we don’t act now.

East Africa is one at-risk region where the IRC is taking action. After years of successive droughts, over 22 million people are suffering from acute food insecurity, with many being forced to flee their homes in search of food and water. 

Children are particularly at risk from malnutrition and famine and currently 4 out of 5 malnourished children don't get treatment they need. The IRC has developed a new malnutrition treatment that is faster, cheaper and has a 92% recovery rate.

When is a famine declared?

A famine is a catastrophic event, declared when a certain set of conditions have been met. They are: 

That means, by the time a famine is declared, children are already starting to die because their parents cannot give them enough food to survive. It’s already too late.  

That is why immediate action is needed in East Africa to avoid mass deaths. 

Initially displaced by drought in Somalia, Halima and her family have continued to have difficulty accessing food.
"Food prices fluctuate – high and low. When it’s high, we can’t afford to buy most or all of the food." Initially displaced by drought in Somalia, Halima and her family have continued to have difficulty accessing food. The war in Ukraine has had knock-on effects on grain prices in East Africa.
Photo: Mustafa Saeed for the IRC

What are the levels of food insecurity?

Measuring levels of food insecurity and determining a famine is highly technical. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) describes the severity of food emergencies on a scale from 1 to 5, and acts as a warning system for governments and humanitarian organisations to take action. 

The IPC grades a food crisis using the following technical levels, with level 5 being the highest level of food insecurity: 

Level one: Food Security. Households are able to meet essential food and non-food needs. 

Level two: Stressed. Households have minimally adequate food consumption. 

Level three: Crisis. Households either: a) Have above normal levels of malnutrition and mortality due to lack of food; or b) Are forced to take “crisis” strategies such as selling assets or reducing expenses on things like children's school or medications. 

Level four: Emergency. Households either: a) Have very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality; or b) Are forced to take “emergency” strategies such as selling their home, theft, and other high-risk behaviours and jobs. 

Level five: Catastrophe / Famine. Households have an extreme lack of food, even after using “emergency” strategies. Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.  

In addition, three conditions also need to be met before a declaration of famine: 

1)    1 in 5 households in a certain area face extreme food shortages (i.e. level five on the IPC scale); and 

2)    more than 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished; and  

3)    at least two of every 10,000 people die each day. 

80-year-old Hawo with her live stock
"Droughts are not new to me but to my experience, this is the worst I have ever seen." For 80-year-old Hawo, drought in Somalia is a risk to her animals, which are her only source of income.
Photo: Horn Connect for the IRC

What are the main causes of famine? 

Famines are man-made and preventable because a food shortage of this severity is the result of a failure to take action to prevent it. Key causes of famine and food shortages in general are as follows:

Lack of sufficient humanitarian aid: Famines are a severe form of food shortage that are preventable through a coordinated response by aid organisations, governments and international entities. 

Drought and crop failure: Droughts are becoming increasingly common. East Africa has seen five consecutive failed rainy seasons leading to widespread food shortages.  

Climate change: Droughts and crop failures are often caused by climate and weather conditions. Increases in global temperatures may be contributing to drier conditions and low rainfall that causes drought and crop failures, leading to food shortages. 

Conflict and politics: The UN has said that conflict and violence are the primary cause of hunger, malnutrition, and famine, and that political solutions are key to solving food shortages. One example of this is the war in Ukraine, which has impacted global supplies of grain, including to East African countries already facing food shortages. 

When was the last famine declared? 

The last famine was declared in South Sudan where a combination of political instability and drought led to extreme food shortages in early 2017. Largely focused in the northern part of the country, the famine affected an estimated five million people (nearly 50% of the South-Sudanese population). Globally this was the first famine declared in 6 years, and there has not been another one since.  

Following the declaration of famine, there was a large international response from the UN and national governments, providing food supplies and cash assistance. The IRC delivered support via our staff already living in the country, including malnutrition treatment.  

What happens in a famine? 

Famine is more than just widespread hunger. The impacts of famine are incredibly serious and include high infant mortality and long term social and political turmoil.  

Children are high risk

Ahmed is a Nutrition officer, and usually works at IRC office and field in Dhusamareb, he supervises health workers that works in the Stabilization centre, TSFP and OTP of Hanano hospital.
IRC nutrition officer, Ahmed, provides malnutrition treatment for Kalia and her child in Dhusomareb, Somalia. Famine is declared when rates of malnutrition are severe.
Photo: Mustafa Saeed for the IRC

Malnutrition is already deadly, especially in infants and young children. Children are particularly affected because they are still growing. The majority of those at risk of death are children, whether they are dying from starvation or from preventable diseases that their weakened bodies cannot fight off.  

The children who do survive will live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. They are at risk of stunted growth and a greater risk of dying from future illnesses. They also tend to have a higher risk of having underweight or premature children, passing on these consequences to future generations. 

Famine fuels violence and insecurity.  

Global threats like terrorism grow out of poverty and political and economic instability. Conflict spreads in famine areas and other places where food and resources are scarce. People are displaced from their homes and lose their means of earning a living: This lack of opportunity is fodder for terrorist recruitment.  

Famine destroys societies.  

We are at risk of losing an entire generation to starvation—children who are their communities’ best hope for a more peaceful and stable future. 

 How can we prevent famine? 

In the twenty-first century famines are predictable and preventable. What is lacking is the political will and resources to do so. The IRC has identified high-risk countries and called for an international famine task force coordinated by the UN to prevent another famine. 

Actions that can help prevent another famine: 

Acting quickly in high-risk areas before it’s too late 

There are robust data and warning systems in place that show risk of famine, but there needs to be a unified task force who can act upon these when a high-risk food shortage occurs. 

Providing water to drought-hit areas 

It is sometimes possible to get water to drought hit areas, via water trucks or by drilling boreholes. In 2022 the IRC worked in Somalia during the country’s worst drought in 40 years and helped to provide water to communities who expressed a clear need for it. 

Prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition  

Over the past decade, the IRC has developed a simpler, cheaper and more efficient way to diagnose and treat malnutrition. This approach is called the simplified protocol and is proven to be more effective than the status quo, which is unnecessarily complex, expensive and heavily reliant on distant health centers, and challenging to scale. 
We know this simplified approach works, even in the most challenging settings. A recent study, conducted by the IRC in partnership with the Mali Ministry of Health, treated more than 27,000 children with the simplified protocol and saw recovery rates over 90% while treatment costs dropped by 21%.