Famine could be described as the occurrence of prolonged and extreme scarcity of food. It could also occur as a result of a relatively sudden event. It is characterised by mass mortalities within a short duration.
However, the matter may be complicated as the definition of starvation varies according to different cultural ethos, and death as a result of starvation is not always easy to distinguish from death caused by disease. The ‘Hunger Programme’ at Brown University reveals that though the number of deaths due to famine has steadily gone down since 1945, even in the late 1980s a combined population of 200 million (from different regions) succumbed to famine.
The occurrence of famine is now inseparably linked with the developing countries of the world; therefore the geographical regions which almost regularly experience famine are concentrated in a few specific pockets of the world— mostly in Africa and, to a lesser extent, South Asia.
All famines, for practical purposes, are the result of crop failures, which, in turn, are caused mainly by drought, too much rainfall, or plant diseases and pests. Besides, human activities may also lead to famine. Drought is, perhaps, the single most important cause of famine.
Certain regions of Africa, Central Asia, China and India have in the past been specially hardhit by famine. Significantly, these areas border deserts. In a dry year, crops fail, and famine may result. It was the dry weather in the Deccan plateau of India that caused serious famine in the 1870s, leading to the death of millions.
In the same period, China too suffered a famine. Lack of rain was again the cause of the widespread famine in the 1960s and 1970s in the Sahel region of Africa (just south of the Sahara and including parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and the Sudan) besides Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia (the dry regions of which countries some geographers consider to be part of the Sahel). Even in the 1990s many of these regions, especially Ethiopia and the Sudan, have been victims of famine.
Too much rainfall, too, may lead to crop failure and, hence, to famine. Rivers swollen by heavy rains overflow their banks and flood the cropland, destroying crops (which rot due to excess water). In the 1300s, Western Europe experienced widespread famine caused by several years of heavy rains.
The Huang He River in China (China’s Sorrow, as it is known) has caused heavy flooding and consequent famines, the most destructive of them being in 1929 and 1930. Sudan suffered famine due to floods in 1989. Plant diseases on a large scale can cause havoc. The potato crop was destroyed in Ireland in the 1840s because of a plant disease, leading to millions of deaths due to starvation and disease; it also led to large-scale emigration.
Pests such as locusts also cause large-scale destruction of crops and vegetation, especially in the Sahel and other regions of Africa. There are sudden and unexpected natural disasters, such as cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves and early frosts that may affect large areas, destroying enough crops to cause famine. Bangladesh and Indian coastal areas— Orissa, Bengal and Andhra Pradesh—have, even in the recent past, suffered from shortages of food if not exactly famine because of cyclones.
Human actions may lead to famines. Problems such as civil wars or war between two countries result in a decline in agricultural and industrial production as witnessed in Rwanda and Burundi in Africa in the past.
War may result in famine if too many farmers leave their fields to join the armed forces. In some cases, armies deliberately destroy stored food and standing crops thus causing famine to force an enemy to surrender. During the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), millions of Biafrans starved as blockades were set up to prevent shipments of food from reaching the region of Biafra.
In the long term, human developmental activities, if not conducted on a sustainable level, can lead to crop failures. Widespread deforestation, lack of water harvesting methods in arid regions, depletion of groundwater, etc. contribute to famine. Famines in almost all African countries may be attributed, to a great extent, to the lack of sustainability.
Sometimes, a food crisis may occur due to wrong government policies: there may be a lack of emphasis on building up of food storage infrastructure, or export of food items may be encouraged without considering domestic demand. After famine conditions develop, slow or inefficient efforts at shipment of food often aggravate the situation and leads to avoidable misery.
Unequal access to food often causes famine conditions for a vast majority of population in the developing countries. Such problems become acute with the conspicuous absence of adequate social security measures. For example, the Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a vast section of population lacking purchasing power although these countries enjoy a high per capita income.
The occurrence of the infamous Bengal famine in 1943 was mainly the result of food export by the British in their war effort, rather than a decline in food production.
According to Prof. Amartya Sen, famine is related to the failure of socially specific entitlements, which vary in relation to property rights, distribution of assets, class and gender. Mass poverty results from long-term changes in such entitlements. And in many cases, starvation arises from a lack of purchasing power in the people rather than actual non-availability of food.
High population growth is also a contributory factor in the complexity of famine and food crisis, for unsustainable population growth with a concomitant growth in poverty increases the numbers needing to be fed and diminishes their purchasing power.
The chief and immediate effects of famine are death and disease. Lack of food over a prolonged period causes people to lose weight and become weak. Many victims of famine become so feeble that they die of dehydration caused by diarrhoea or some other disease. The first to die are the old and the children. Deficiency diseases such as kwashiorkor become rampant. Even if such diseases do not claim lives, their victims are affected by mental and physical handicaps.
The possibility of epidemics increases in famine conditions. Weakness makes people easily susceptible to and unable to fight diseases like cholera and typhus. Often uprooted from their homes to live in crowded refugee camps, the people face unhygienic conditions in which diseases spread easily.
Famine affects not only the human beings; it causes death of livestock, and thus robs many persons of their livelihood.
Migration is another result of famine. Large numbers of famine-affected people tend to leave their homes in rural areas for cities or other regions of their country or refugee camps in search of food. Prolonged famine may result in emigration: people cross borders into neighbouring countries (often leading to strained relations between the two countries); or they may go to distant lands in search of livelihood. The potato famine in Ireland, for example, led to large-scale emigration of the Irish, especially to the United States.
Crime and other social disorders increase during a famine, especially cases of looting, theft and prostitution. Scattered bouts of violence also occur, especially near food distribution centres.
In the long term, the governments, which take aid and help from international agencies or other countries, may lose an element of their sovereignty (due to strings attached to aid). Furthermore, as they strive to pay back loans even as their economies weaken, they get caught in a financial crisis.
If famine occurs, rescue and help has to be efficient and immediate. While the role of private groups is important, it is the government which should set in motion the major steps to mitigate the effects of the disaster. For this, the government should have a workable relief policy in place and an effective administrative machinery to implement it. The programme should encompass not only food supply but also medical support.
Food production should be increased, and a buffer stock of food-grains and essential items should be built up, so that regional crop failures will not cause disastrous shortages.
Proper agro-climatic planning is useful as an effective long-term strategy in combating food crisis.
The application of modern scientific methods such as remote sensing and the Geographical Information System (GIS) can be useful in accurately locating potential crisis spots.
The developing countries should put more emphasis on checking population growth which is one of the most important reasons for the food crisis.
The fruits of economic development should reach the grass-root levels of the society. Despite a steady economic growth, a vast section, of population in many countries continue to live in near famine- condition for a long time.