Famine Trends Dataset, Tables and Graphs


The Famine Trends dataset 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).

For more discussion of the data, see Alex de Waal, “Armed Conflict and the Challenge of Hunger: Is an End in Sight?” in The 2015 Global Hunger Index (Welthungerhilfe, International Food Policy Research Institute, and Concern Worldwide). See also de Waal’s posts on famine on the WPF blog, Reinventing Peace. His upcoming publication  Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (Polity Books, Fall 2017 [UK] Winter 2018 [US]) is partially based on this dataset, will explore the history of modern famines: their causes, dimensions, and why they ended.

Tables and Graphs | Dataset

Tables and Graphs
  Graph 1: Famine mortality by decade: 1870-2010

This graph plots worldwide famine mortality between 1870 and 2010, by decade.

Famines and episodes of forcible mass starvation have killed 104.3 million people since 1870. The main trend, however, is downwards. In each decade between the 1870s and the 1970s, great famines killed between 1.45 million and 16.64 million, at an average of about 927,810 per year. The last calamitous famine was Cambodia in 1975-79. Since 1980, the annual death toll in great famines has averaged 75,217, or about 8 per cent of the historic level.

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  Graph 2: World Population Growth and Death Toll from Great Famines: 1870-2010

The decline in famines is inversely correlated with the growth in world population, from about 1.3 billion in 1870 to 7 billion today.

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  Graph 3: Famine Mortality by Region and Decade: 1870-2010

The history of great famines can be classified into 4 broad periods: (a) famines of European colonialism (till about 1914); (b) the extended period of the world wars and accompanying mass starvation (from 1914 till about 1950); (c) famines caused by totalitarianism (including the famine caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward), and (d) Decline and smaller famines and humanitarian crises since the 1970’s (primarily in sub-Saharan Africa). 

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  Graph 4: Regional distribution of famine deaths: 1870-2010

The geography of modern famine is overwhelmingly a story of Asia and eastern Europe, which account for 87.4 percent of famine deaths in the period. Approximately half of these (56.5 million) were in East and South-east Asia: mostly China but also Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia. South Asia accounted for a further 16.5 million. Europe including the USSR accounted for 18.17 million.

African famine deaths during the entire period are estimated at 9.18 percent of the total, 9.575 million, most of them in the late nineteenth century, in Congo and north-east Africa.  Latin America counted about 1.5 million famine deaths, all of them in Brazil in the nineteenth century. The Middle East has an estimated 2.07 million deaths, most associated with World War One and the Armenian genocide.

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  Graph 4b: Regional distribution of famine deaths: 1870-2010

This chart demonstrates the same information as above.

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  Graph 5: Famine mortality associated with armed conflict and political repression: 1870-2010

The vast majority of famine deaths were association with conflict or political repression. 35.2 million occurred in wartime, with a further 1.7 million in countries emerging from armed conflict. 42.43 million deaths occurred in famines under active political repression such as repressive colonial rule or dictatorship. A smaller number, 24.975 million deaths, was associated with neither.

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  Graph 6: Famine deaths and faminogenic behaviour

Following David Marcus (2003), we categorize ‘faminogenic acts’ on a four-point scale:

  • First degree famine crimes: Governments or other authorities that deliberately use famine as a tool of extermination or a means of forcing a population to submit to their control. These killed 8.3 million people, 7.9 percent.
  • Second degree famine crimes: Public authorities pursue policies that are the principal cause of famine, and continue to pursue these policies even after becoming aware that they result in famine. These killed 63.7 million, 61 percent, in all continents except the Americas, and in every time period.  
  • Third degree of culpable famine causation: Public authorities are indifferent: their policies may not be the principal cause of famine, but they do little or nothing to alleviate hunger. These killed 19.1 million, 18.3 percent.
  • Fourth degree or non-culpability: Incapable or incapacitated authorities, faced with food crises caused by external factors (climatic, economic, etc.), are unable to respond effectively to needs. These killed 13.3 million, 12.8 percent.

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  Graph 7: Famine deaths, armed conflict and faminogenic behaviour: 1870-2010

This graph disaggregates famine mortality, by plotting the number (and proportion) of deaths that took place during conditions of war and repression, and the faminogenic behavior of governments during that period. As expected, we find that first and second degree faminogenic acts only took place during war or political repression. 

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  Graph 8: Famine mortality and faminogenic behaviour by decade: 1870-2010

This graph disaggregates famine mortality attributable to the 4 degree of faminogenic behaviour, by decade. 

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  Graph 9: Global risk of death from famine: 1870-2010

This graph plots the ratio of global mortality from great famines and the total population of the world, to formulate a very rough estimate of the risk of death from famine, on average, across the world. The trend is downwards, with a sharp decline after the 1960s.

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  Graph 10: Incidents of famine caused by conflict: 1870-2010

This graph plots the total number of famines that can be attributed to war or political repression between 1870-2010. Nearly half of all famines in this period occurred during active armed conflict, 26.23 percent of all famines took place during conditions of active political repression, and 3.28% of famines occurred in countries emerging from conflict. Only 21.31% of famines occurred in countries with no conflict or political repression

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Graph 11: Incidents of faminogenic behaviour

This graph plots the total incidents of 1st to 4th degree faminogenic acts between 1870-2010. In our catalog,  more than half of all great famines (33 instances, or about 54.1 percent) were attributable to second degree faminogenic behaviour. 

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  Graph 12: Incidents of famine attributable to conflict and political repression by decade: 1870-2010

This graph plots (by decade) famines attributable to active armed conflict, political repression, occurring in countries emerging from armed conflict and in countries with no conflict or political repression.

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  Graph 13: Incidents of faminogenic behaviour by decade: 1870-2010

This graphs plots famines attributable to the different degrees of faminogenic behaviour (i.e. 1st – 4th degree) by decade. 

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  Graph 14: Famine incidents by decade, 1870-2010

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Date Place Cause Deaths Source
1870-71 Persia Economic crisis, drought 500,000-1.5 million Foran 1989, Okasaki 1986
1876-1879 China (Shanxi, Henan, Shandong, Zhili, and Shaanxi) Drought, lack of state capacity due to rebellion & colonialism 9m Edgerton-Tarpley, 2008; Fuller, 2015; Davis, 2002; Li, 2007.
1870s India Drought, colonialism 6m Davis, 2002
1876-79 Brazil Drought, economic crisis 500,000 Cunniff, 1970
1885-99 Congo Colonialism, forced labor 3m Hochschild, 1998; Acherson 1999
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
1897-1901 China Drought, economic crisis, colonial warfare, internal rebellion 1m Mallory, 1926; Li, 2007; Esherick, 1987; Cohen, 1997.
1896-1900 Brazil Drought, economic crisis 1m Smith, 1946
1899-1901 India Drought, colonialism 1m Dyson, 1989
1899-1902 S Africa[1] Boer War camps 42,000 Carver, 2000
1904-07 Namibia[2] 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
1913-14 Sahel Drought, colonial conquest 125,000 Schove, 1977
1914-16 East Africa War 300,000 Paice, 2007
1915-18 Greater Syria (including Lebanon) War, blockade, locusts 350,000 Schilcher, 1992 p.229; Antonius 1946, p.241; Fawaz 2015


1915-16 Turkey (Armenians) Genocide, forced deportation 400,000 Morgenthau, 1918; Gilbert 1994; Suny, 2015; Kevorkian 2011
1917-18 Germany Blockade 763,000 Vincent, 1985
1917-19 Persia War, drought 455,200 Afkhami, 2003
1919 Armenia Post-conflict 200,000 Hovannisian 1971 p. 130
1920-21 China (Henan, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi,

Zhili (Hebei))

Drought, economic crisis 500,000 Mallory, 1926; Fuller, 2013; Peking United International Famine Relief Committee, 1922; Li, 2007
1921-22 Russia Civil war 1m-10m (5m official) Lowe 2002; Patenaude 2002, pp. 196-8.
1928-30 China (NW – Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Shandong and Zhili (Hebei)) Drought, War between Chiang Kai-Shek and warlords 5.5m – 10m Li, 2007, p. 304; Fuller, 2015
1929-30 China (Hunan) Drought, war 2m Devereux, 2000; Becker, 1996; Ó Gráda, 2009
1930-31 Libya[3] 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
1934, 1936-7 China (Sichuan) War, economic crisis 5m Ó Gráda, 2008; Wright, 2000
1941-44 Hunger Plan[4]
  Germany/USSR Starvation of Russian POW’s by the Wehrmacht 2.6m Snyder, 2012
  Germany/USSR Siege of Leningrad 1m Snyder, 2012; Collingham 2012
  Germany/USSR Deaths of Soviet Citizens due to starvation in the USSR, including those killed in the occupation of Kiev and Kharkiv 1m Snyder, 2012
  Poland Death of residents of the Warsaw Ghetto from starvation 83,000 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
1941-50 Germany/USSR Death of German POWs in Soviet captivity 1.1m World Peace Foundation forthcoming
1941-2 Greece Blockade 300,000 Mazower, 1993
1942-3 China (Henan) War 1.5m Muscolino 2015; Garnaut, 2013
1941-45 East Asia (various locations) Japanese soldiers who died of malnutrition and starvation 1.044m Collingham 2012
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[5] Drought 50,000 Wolde Mariam, 1986
1969-70 Nigeria War/blockade 500,000 Leitenberg, 2006
1970-73 Sahel[6] Drought 0-101,000 de Waal, 1989
1972-73 India (Maharashtra)[7] Drought 130,000 Dyson 1991; Devereux, 2000
1973 Ethiopia Drought 200,000 Wolde Mariam, 1986
1974 Bangladesh Flood, cyclones, economic crisis 1.5m Alamgir, 1980
1975-78 East Timor Conflict 104,000 Van Klinken, 2012
1975-9 Cambodia Year Zero 1.21m Kiernan, 2008
1983-5 Ethiopia War, drought 600,000 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
1991-1999 Iraq Sanctions, war and dictatorship 166,000-300,000 Garfield 1999; Ali and Shah 2000.
1995-7 North Korea Food shortage and govt policy 240,000-600,000 Goodkind et al., 2011; Spoorenberg and Schwekendiek 2012
1998-2002 Democratic Republic of Congo War 290,500-5.4 million Roberts et al. 2000, 2001, 2003; Coghlan et al. 2006, 2007.
1998-9 Sudan (South) War 100,000 Medley, 2010; Burr. 1998
2003-05 Sudan (Darfur) War 200,000 Government Accountability Office, 2006
2003-06 Uganda War 100,000 Mazurana et al. 2014
2011 Somalia[8] Drought, war 164,000 Checchi and Robinson 2013; Maxwell and Nisar, 2015

We note that a famine (caused by drought, floods and economic crisis) in Anhui and Jiangsu provinces of China is reported to have resulted in the deaths of 24 million people in 1907 (Kte’pi, 2011) but were unable to find any other sources to corroborate this. Consequently, we have not included this in our famine data.

[1] We do not include this in our dataset.

[2] We do not include this in our dataset, as the death toll may not have crossed 50,000.

[3] We do not include this in our dataset, as the death toll may not have crossed 50,000.

[4] The ‘Hunger Plan’ includes all episodes of mass starvation associated with the Eastern Front 1941-5, including the starvation of Jews. The total numbers who died of starvation on account of the Hunger Plan and the Final Solution is undoubtedly well in excess of the total in these lines. Starvation deaths in the Warsaw Ghetto are included because it is classified within the Hunger Plan.

[5] We do not include this in our quantitative data.

[6] We do not include this in our quantitative data.

[7] We do not include this in our quantitative data.

[8] We generate our quantitative results on the basis of the episodes of famine between 1870-2010; as a consequence we do not include this episode in our quantitative dataset.



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