What is a famine?

Gaza stands on the brink. After months of bombardment and blockade, half the population is at imminent risk of famine. But what actually is a famine? Who decides when a famine is happening, and what does it mean when they do?

On 18 March 2024, a UN-backed report sounded the alarm. It stated that the entire population of Gaza was short of food and predicted that famine would arrive in the north sometime between mid-March and May 2024. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said: “1.1 million people in Gaza are facing catastrophic hunger – the highest number of people ever recorded, anywhere, anytime.”

The word “famine” is often used loosely to describe a situation of extreme and widespread hunger. But it also has a more precise definition in a humanitarian context. At the heart of this definition is the idea of “food insecurity”.

Children bottle drinking water, west of the city of Rafah, through a water line they connected from Egypt. Photo: Yousef Hammash/NRC

The word “famine” is often used loosely to describe a situation of extreme and widespread hunger. But it also has a more precise definition in a humanitarian context. At the heart of this definition is the idea of “food insecurity”.

The five phases of food insecurity

When we say that people are food secure, it means they can access sufficient nutritious food on a regular basis. When people are food insecure, it means that their food supply isn’t guaranteed. Perhaps they’re struggling financially and can’t always afford to eat well. Or perhaps there simply isn’t enough food to go round in the area where they live.

In 2004, the UN devised a system for monitoring food insecurity in populations. The system is called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC for short.

It describes five levels, or phases, of food insecurity:

Phase 1: Minimal. People can get enough nutritious food without major changes to their everyday lives.

Phase 2: Stressed. People have minimally adequate diets but struggle to meet their other needs.

Phase 3: Crisis. Some people can’t get enough food and have high levels of malnutrition. Others are forced to use up their savings and other assets to support their basic food needs.

Phase 4: Emergency. People face extreme food shortages. Acute malnutrition and disease levels are high. The risk of hunger-related death is rapidly increasing.

Phase 5: Famine. People are unable to access food or meet their other basic needs. At least one in five households face extreme food shortages, and at least 30 per cent of children suffer from acute malnutrition. Each day, at least two out of every 10,000 people die of starvation or malnutrition-related disease.

Why do we need the IPC system?

The main purpose of the IPC system is to provide information to decision-makers so that they can take action to stop crises getting worse. The system looks at different aspects of food insecurity, including urgent medical needs, urgent food needs, and issues that are more persistent or seasonal such as repeated crop failure.

This analysis helps to identify what kind of intervention is needed – for example, whether it should take the form of emergency aid or longer-term development assistance.

Governments, UN agencies, NGOs and other stakeholders work together to monitor IPC levels in parts of the world where food insecurity is a concern. When IPC 3 (Crisis) is reached, these organisations mobilise to take urgent action.

Two women stand beside the carcass of one of their goats in the Nugal region of northern Somalia. Photo: Abdulkadir Mohamed/NRC

What happens when a famine is declared?

The decision to declare a famine is usually made jointly by the government of the affected country and various UN and other international agencies. It’s a complex process involving a lot of analysis and negotiation.

While this process is going on, famine-like conditions may already be afflicting parts of the country. The IPC report on Gaza published in March 2024 estimated that at least 1 in 8 children were acutely malnourished.

The declaration of a famine doesn’t place any formal obligations on the UN or its member states. However, it does help to focus the world’s attention on the problem – and thus generate emergency funding.

Where is food insecurity an issue?

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), there are more than half a billion people with insufficient food, and 16 countries with very high levels of hunger. Food insecurity is an issue in many different parts of the world, from Central America to Afghanistan, and the picture is constantly changing.

You can view the latest hunger hotspots on the WFP’s online hunger map.

What causes famine?

The most common cause of famine is drought. Other causes include flooding, crop disease, conflict, and political neglect or persecution.

Often, a combination of factors comes into play. In Somalia, for example, a long-running conflict has exacerbated the effects of the ongoing drought in recent years. In addition, food prices in the country rose steeply following the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Climate change is contributing to more frequent, and more severe, droughts and floods around the world. We can expect food insecurity related to extreme weather to increase in the years to come.

Famines are often thought of as “natural disasters”, but they are usually caused to a large degree by human actions – or lack of action.

How common is famine?

In the last 15 years, famine has been declared on two occasions.

The famines in Somalia in 2011 and in South Sudan in 2017 resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. These extreme crises were mainly driven by a combination of conflict and erratic weather patterns.

However, it’s important to note that death and suffering linked to food insecurity happen even when there isn’t a famine. In fact, by the time a famine is declared, children will already have started to die because their parents cannot give them enough food to survive.

That’s why it’s important to take decisive action early. In 2017, the international community helped to avert famine in Somalia and other parts of East Africa because it took early action. An even greater effort is needed now if we are to avert catastrophic loss of life.

What is NRC doing to help?

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) supports people displaced by conflict as well as those in displacement settings who are facing food shortages.

Between January and August 2022, we reached 636,768 individuals as part of our Somalia Drought Response Plan.

In Gaza, we are providing life-saving aid in the form of clean water, hot meals, hygiene items, emergency cash and other essential items.

With your help, we can continue to support people affected by displacement and hunger.

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