This is a dataset of historic famines and episodes of mass intentional starvation.

It is a working dataset, to be updated as more and better sources become available.

It includes two kinds of overlapping events, which have hitherto largely been studied separately. One set of events is great and catastrophic famines. A famine is defined as a food crisis that causes elevated mortality over a specific period of time. Using the criteria developed by Stephen Devereux (Devereux 2000) for ‘great famines’ (100,000 or more excess deaths) and ‘catastrophic famines’ (one million or more excess deaths), it includes any famine for which the upper estimate of excess deaths falls above 100,000. Using the four-point scale for ‘famine crimes’ developed by David Marcus (Marcus 2003), it also includes episodes of mass intentional starvation. For these events, the threshold is 10,000 deaths by starvation for inclusion in the listing. However, only events of mass intentional starvation that caused over 100,000 deaths are included in the quantitative dataset, on which the graphs are based.

There are major methodological issues with the estimation of excess mortality. Generally speaking, better demographic calculations lead to lower estimations of excess deaths than those provided by journalists and other contemporary observers. We might therefore reasonably expect an upward bias in the figures for earlier famines on the record. On the other hand, contemporary definitions of famine (e.g. Howe and Devereux 2004) provide thresholds for nutrition and mortality that correspond with normal or near-normal conditions in many historic societies (see Ó Gráda 2015, pp. 174-5).


Date Place Cause Deaths Source
1870s China Drought, colonialism 9.5-13m Davis, 2002
1870s India Drought, colonialism 6-10m Davis, 2002
1876-79 Brazil Drought, economic crisis 500,000-1m Cunniff, 1970
1885-99 Congo Colonialism, forced labor 5m Hochschild, 1998
1888-89 India (Ganjam) Drought, colonialism 150,000 Dyson, 1989
1888-92 Ethiopia Drought, war, rinderpest 1m Pankhurst, 1968
1888-92 Sudan Drought, war 2m de Waal, 1989
1891-92 Russia Drought, economic crisis 275,000 Robbins, 1970
1896-7 India Drought, colonialism 5.5m Dyson, 1989
1896-7 China Drought, economic crisis 1m Mallory, 1926
1896-1900 Brazil Drought, economic crisis 1m-1.5m Smith, 1946
1899-1901 India Drought, colonialism 1m Dyson, 1989
1899-1902 S Africa Boer War camps 42,000 Carver, 2000
1904-07 Namibia Genocide 34-110,000 Olusoga and Ericsen, 2011
1905-7 Tanganyika Repression of rebellion 200,000 Iliffe, 1979
1906-7 India Drought, colonialism 250,000 Dyson, 1989
1907 China Drought, floods, economic crisis 24m Mallory, 1926
1913-14 Sahel Drought, colonial conquest 125,000 Schove, 1977
1914-16 East Africa War 300,000 Paice, 2007
1916-18 Lebanon Blockade, war 200,000 Schilcher, 1992
1916-18 Greater Syria War 300,000 Schilcher, 1992


1917-22 Turkey (Armenians) Genocide, forced deportation 400-800,000 Morgenthau, 1918; Gilbert 1994; Suny, 1998
1917-18 Germany Blockade 763,000 Vincent, 1985
1920-21 China (Gansu, Shaanxi) Drought, economic crisis 500,000 Mallory, 1926
1921-22 Russia Civil war 9m Moskoff, 1990
1927-28 China (NW) Drought, economic crisis 3m-6m Devereux, 2000
1929-30 China (Hunan) Drought, war 2m Devereux, 2000
1930-31 Libya Concentration camps 50,000 Baldinetti, 2014
1932-34 USSR (Ukraine) Collectivization 3.3m Snyder, 2012
1932-34 USSR (Russia, Kazakhstan) Collectivization 1.5m Snyder, 2012
1936 China War 5m Devereux, 2000
1940-41 Germany/USSR PoWs 1.25-1.65m Snyder, 2012
1940-44 Germany/USSR Siege 641,000 Snyder, 2012
1940-44 Germany/USSR Hunger Plan 4.2m Snyder, 2012
1940-45 Poland Nazi occupation 3m Snyder, 2012
1941-2 Greece Blockade 300,000 Mazower, 1993
1942-3 China (Henan) War 3m Devereux, 2000
1942-45 Indonesia Japanese occupation 2.4m Van der Eng, 2008
1943 India (Bengal) Govt wartime policy 2.1m Dyson & Maharatna, 1991
1943-44 Rwanda Drought 300,000 Devereux, 2000
1944-45 Vietnam Japanese occupation 2m Gunn, 2011
1945-47 Eastern Europe Reprisals against Germans 250,000 Lowe, 2013
1947 USSR (Moldova and other areas) Food shortage and policy 600,000-1.5m Ganson, 2009; Ó Gráda 2015, pp. 12-13.
1958 Ethiopia Drought 100,000 Wolde Mariam, 1986
1958-62 China Govt policies 18.5-32m Ashton et al. 1984; Peng 1987; Ó Gráda 2015, p. 159;
1966 Ethiopia Drought 50,000 Wolde Mariam, 1986
1969-70 Nigeria War/blockade 1m Leitenberg, 2006
1970-73 Sahel Drought 0-101,000 de Waal, 1989
1972-73 India (Maharashtra) Drought 70,000-130,000 Dyson 1991; Devereux, 2000
1973 Ethiopia Drought 200,000 Wolde Mariam, 1986
1974 Bangladesh Flood 1.5m Alamgir, 1980
1975-78 East Timor Conflict 104,000 Van Klinken, 2012
1975-9 Cambodia Year Zero 1.75m Kiernan, 2008
1983-5 Ethiopia War, drought 600,000-1m de Waal, 1997
1984-5 Sudan (Darfur, Kordofan, Red Sea) Drought, economic crisis 240,000 de Waal, 1989
1988 Sudan (South) War 100,000 Burr, 1998
1992-3 Somalia War 220,000 Hansch et al., 1994
1995-7 North Korea Food shortage and govt policy 240,000-600,000 Goodkind et al., 2011; Spoorenberg and Schwekendiek 2012
1998-9 Sudan (South) War 100,000 Medley, 2010; Burr. 1998
2003-05 Sudan (Darfur) War 200,000 Government Accountability Office, 2006
2011 Somalia Drought, war 164,000-258,000 Checchi and Robinson 2013; Maxwell and Nisar, 2015





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Ashton, Basil, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, and Robin Zeitz, 1984. ‘Famine in China, 1958-61,’ Population and Development Review, 10.4, 613-45.


Baldinetti, Anna, 2014. The Origins of the Libyan Nation: Colonial Legacy, Exile and the Emergence of a New Nation-State. New York: Routledge.


Burr, Millard. 1998. Quantifying Genocide in Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Washington, DC: Committee of Refugees.


Carver, Michael, 2000. The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War. London: Pan Macmillan.


Checchi, Francesco, and W. Courtland Robinson, 2013. ‘Mortality and Populations of Southern and Central Somalia Affected by Severe Food Insecurity and Famine during 2010-12,’ Washington DC: FewsNet.


Conquest, Robert, 1987. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Cunniff, Roger, 1970. “The Great Drought: Northeast Brazil, 1887-1880,” PhD dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.


Davis, Mike, 2002. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, London, Verso.


Devereux, Stephen, 2000. “Famine in the Twentieth Century,” University of Sussex, IDS Working Paper 105.


De Waal, Alex. 1989. Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-1985. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


De Waal, Alex, 1997. Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. London: James Currey.


Dyson, Tim. 1989, India’s Historical Demography: Studies in Famine, Disease and Society. London: SOAS.


Dyson, Tim, 1991. ‘On the Demography of South Asian Famines, Part 2,’ Population Studies, 45, pp. 279-97.


Dyson, Tim and Arup Maharatna, 1991. “Excess mortality during the Bengal famine: A re-evaluation,” Indian Economic & Social History Review, 28: 281-297.


Fawaz, Leila, 2015. A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.


Ganson, Nicholas, 2009. The Soviet Famine of 1946-47 in Global and Historical Perspective. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Government Accountability Office, 2006. Darfur Crisis: Death Estimates Demonstrate Severity of Crisis, but Their Accuracy and Credibility Could Be Enhanced, U.S. GAO, Report GAO-07-24. Washington DC.


Gilbert, Martin, 1994. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt.


Goodkind, D., L. West, and P. Johnson, 2011. “A Reassessment of Mortality in North Korea, 1993-2008.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, Washington, DC.


Gunn, Geoffrey, 2011. ‘The Great Vietnamese Famine of 1944-45 Revisited’, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 9.5 No 4, January 31.


Hansch, S., S. Lillibridge, G. Egeland, C. Teller and M. Toole, 1994. ‘Lives Lost, Lives Saved: Excess mortality and the impact of health intervention in the Somali Emergency.’ Washington DC: Refugee Policy Group.


Hochschild, Adam, 1998. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. NY: Mariner.


Howe, Paul and Steven Devereux, 2004. ‘Famine Intensity and Magnitude Scales: A proposal for an instrumental definition of famine,” Disasters 28.1, pp. 353-72.


Iliffe, John, 1979. A Modern History of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Kiernan, B. 2008. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 197579, Third Edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Leitenberg, Milton, 2006. “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century.” Cornell University Peace Studies Program.


Lowe, Keith, 2013. Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. London: Picador.


Mallory, Walter Hampton, 1926. China: Land of Famine. New York: American Geographical



Marcus, D. 2003. “Famine Crimes in International Law.” The American Journal of International Law 97 (2): 245–281.


Maxwell, Daniel and Nisar Majid, 2015. Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12. London: Hurst.


Mazower, Mark, 1993. Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44. Yale University Press, New Haven.


Medley, Michael, 2010. “Humanitarian Parsimony in Sudan: The Bahr al Ghazal Famine of 1998,” University of Bristol, Unpublished PhD Thesis.


Morgenthau, Henry, 1918. Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. New York: Doubleday.


Moskoff, William, 1990. The Bread of Affliction: The food supply in the USSR during World War II, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Ó Gráda, Cormac, 2015. Eating People is Wrong and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, Present and Future, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Olusoga, David, and Casper Erichsen, 2011. The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s forgotten genocide and the colonial roots of Nazism. London: Faber and Faber.


Paice, Edward, 2007. Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa. London: Phoenix.


Peng, Xizhe, 1987, ‘Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s Provinces,’ Population and Development Review, 13.4, 639-70.


Pankhurst, Richard, 1968. Economic History of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press.


Robbins, Richard Gardiner, 1970. “The Russian Famine of 1891-1892 and the Relief Policy of the Imperial Government,” PhD dissertation, Columbia University.


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Schilcher, Linda Schatkowski, 1992. “The Famine of 1915-1918 in Greater Syria,” in John Spagnolo, ed., Problems of the Modern Middle East in Historical Perspective. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press.


Schove, D. J. 1977. “African Droughts and the Spectrum of Time,” in D. Dalby, R. J. Harrison-Church and F. Bezzaz (eds.), Drought in Africa 2, London, International African Institute, African Environment Special Report No. 6.


Smith, Lynn, 1946. Brazil: People and Institutions. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana University Press.


Snyder, Timothy, 2012. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books.


Spoorenberg, Thomas and Daniel Schwekendiek, 2012. “Demographic Changes in North Korea: 1993-2008,” Population and Development Review, 38.1, 133-158.


Suny, Ronald Grigar, 1998. “Empire and Nation: Armenians, Turks, and the End of the Ottoman Empire.” Armenian Forum 1.2.


Van der Eng, Pierre, 2008. Food Supply in Java during War and Decolonisation, 1940-1950. Munich Personal RePEc Archive paper no. 8852,


Van Klinken, Gerry, 2012. Death By Deprivation in East Timor 1975-1980. World Peace Foundation,


Vincent, C. Paul, 1985. The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.


Wolde Mariam, Mesfin, 1986. Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia, 1958-77. London: IT Press.



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4 Responses to Historic famines and episodes of mass intentional starvation

  1. Thy Tran says:

    What excludes the Great Famine of Ireland from being considered here?

  2. Alex says:

    Dear Thy, we began our dataset in 1870, which therefore excludes the Great Irish famine, and a host of other major famines in China, India and South Africa in the 1860s. The reason for the 1870 cut off date is that the data for world famines prior to then are very unreliable. But if we are able to extend the dataset back to early in the 19th century it will definitely be included.

  3. Elias Azrak says:

    Any particular reason for excluding the Persian famine of 1917-1919 from being considered here?
    Thanks in advance.

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