Famines have existed throughout the world over time and in varying degrees of severity. These conditions, characterized by a lack of adequate food supply, can be caused by any factor. Everything from inflation to war, political turmoil, natural disasters or crop diseases can ignite a famine with widespread consequences for the population of a region or country. Famines have affected every continent in the world, but the frequency and location of famines has changed over time.
A Brief History and Reasons
Although famines have diminished in severity with modernity, and the most severe occurred centuries ago, famines are still alarmingly common in our modern world. Fortunately, the efforts of the United Nations and other forms of aid helped reduce death rates when famine occurred, but the consequences of famines still remain severe. Conflict is the main factor in most of today’s famines.
Additionally, famine often arose in the 16th and 17th centuries, in part due to primitive farming techniques. As agriculture developed and progressed, commercialization increased. The necessity created an increase in farm productivity, as farmers often lived on land owned by a homeowner. This meant that while previously a family could only grow the food it needed, most farms now have commercial or industrial surplus crops. As societies grew and modernized, the causes of famines changed. While improved farming techniques and crop yields cleared some issues, industrialization, government control and war brought new concerns to the table. The 20th century saw famines with extremely high losses.
Great Chinese Famine 1959-61
The deadliest famine in history occurred in China between 1959 and 1961. This disaster is often cited as one of the greatest man-made disasters, although regional droughts have played a role. The famine was caused by a combination of political and social factors introduced by the People’s Republic of China. Beginning in 1958, the Great Leap Forward and the people’s communes created a deadly environment that claimed tens of millions of lives. These policies included radical changes in farming policy and banning farm ownership. Additionally, peasants were diverted from agriculture in favor of iron and steel production, which greatly reduced farm output. All this led to a significant decline in China’s grain production and a widespread food shortage. While governments have reported about 15 million deaths, experts agree that the death toll is higher and the numbers range from 20 to 50 million.
1907 Chinese Famine
Northern China suffered a famine that claimed 25 million lives. This famine was caused by heavy rainfall during the growing season, which destroyed many plants and hampered food production. During this time, nearly 40,000 square miles of land in the provinces of Honan, Kiang-su, and Anhui were flooded. About 10% of the population of northern China died in this disaster.
Chalisa and the South Indian Famines 1782-84
The Chalisa famine occurred in North India from 1783 to 1784 and followed a similar famine that had occurred in South India the previous year. Unusually hot weather swept through India in 1780 and continued for the next few years, causing a severe drought. Due to the extreme heat and lack of rain, crops and food resources were depleted or unable to grow, quickly causing food shortages. During both famines, there were more than 11 million deaths and the population drastically decreased, especially in Delhi territory.
1770 Bengal Famine
In 1770, Bengal was hit by a devastating famine that wiped out roughly a third of its population. The famine arose due to extreme drought and crop shortages. The region was then ruled by the East India Trading Company, and their focus on profit greatly exacerbated the problem. Despite the worsening farming conditions, taxes were increased and crops shifted from rice to the more profitable opium and indigo. This meant that farmers not only struggled to produce food, but what was available was priced out of reach. As a result of this mismanagement, nearly 10 million people died of starvation.
Soviet Famine (Holodomor) 1932-33
In 1932, the Soviet Union, then led by Joseph Stalin, saw a man-made famine that killed millions in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus, and the Volga Regions. Between 1932 and 1933, the populations of these areas, which were then under Soviet rule, fell sharply. As leaders turned to industrialization rather than agriculture, famine was most prevalent in grain-producing regions. Crop farming was also banned and food supplies were confiscated, causing mass starvation. The details of this famine have been widely discussed, and thus the death tolls are debated. In 2003, the United Nations declared that between 7 and 10 million people died from starvation or its complications.
Russian Famine 1921
The years of the First World War greatly affected Russia. Political unrest and civil wars during 1917 led to a bloody revolution and the beginning of Soviet rule. In those years, food materials were confiscated and these materials were given to Bolshevik soldiers. This, in turn, resulted in a decline in food production as some chose not to grow crops that they would not be allowed to eat. As policies were put in place to reduce tensions between the peasants and the authorities, there was a terrible crop shortage in the Volga basin. As a result, about 5 million Russians lost their lives.
North Korean Famine 1994-98
One of the most devastating famines of modern times, the North Korean famine, or March of Suffering, lasted from 1994 to 1998. This famine was caused by a combination of natural causes and dictatorial rule. In 1995, there was a major flood in North Korea that destroyed more than a million tons of grain. North Korea’s ‘military first’ policy also meant that resources, manpower and food supplies were diverted to the military rather than civilians. In this case, millions of people could not find food. Foreign aid helped reduce the death toll, and about 3.5 tons of food donations were received. Despite this, the death toll is estimated at around 3 million, although the numbers are said to be significantly underreported by North Korean authorities.
Persian Famine 1917-19
World War I brought a period of famine and disease in much of Persia, which was then ruled by the Qajar dynasty. One of the leading factors for this famine was the succession of severe droughts that drastically reduced farming outputs. In addition, the food produced was confiscated by the occupation forces. Changes in trade and general unrest during the war increased fears and created hoarding situations that made the situation worse. This caused a large-scale famine. Although the exact number of deaths is not disclosed, it is claimed that approximately 2 million people lost their lives.
Irish Potato Famine 1845-1853
Another of the worst famines is the Irish Potato Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1853. It was caused by a crop disease that killed most of Ireland’s potatoes. Potatoes were the biggest food source at that time, especially for poor citizens, and the lack of potatoes meant a severe food shortage. With crops being limited, the Irish people needed help to have enough food to survive. However, British national ships blocked the aid of other nations, thus causing more deaths and starvation. As a result of the famine, about 25% of the Country’s citizens were exterminated, and between 1 and 2 million people fled to North America.
Writer: Can Baskin