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What is the definition of famine?

  • 20% of households face extreme food shortages
  • 30% of children suffer from acute malnutrition
  • 2 people per 10,000 die from starvation, or disease + malnutrition

You might think famines are a thing of the past. They should be. But famine still exists and as you read this, 48.9 million people are facing emergency levels of hunger. Tragically, by the time a famine is declared, it's already too late. Thousands of people are already dying of hunger.

WFP has the expertise, deep-field presence and operational scale to stop famine in its tracks, and steer people away from the edge of starvation. We work around the clock to avert famine, but urgently need funding to do this. The price of doing nothing will inevitably be measured in lost lives.

In a world where food production keeps increasing, there is no reason that humans should still be suffering this fate.

What are the main causes of famine?

There are many problems which contribute to famine.

Conflict is the biggest driver of famine. Hunger levels worsen when conflict drives large numbers of people from their homes, their land and their jobs. Famines tend to occur in areas where access is restricted, a common factor in conflict zones.

Climate change and more regular droughts are increasing food shortages. Drought means fewer crops, and climate-induced migration is driving farmers from their land.

The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to sharply increasing hunger numbers. Measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 have hit economies worldwide, pushing millions into unemployment and poverty, and leaving governments and donors with fewer resources to address the food and nutritional needs of the most vulnerable people.

Inequality is also critical factor, with low incomes putting affordable food beyond the reach of millions.

Where is there famine in the world?

There are no countries in the world currently meeting the official definition of a famine outlined above, but there are many countries where the risk of starvation is real and famine could happen very soon.

While the majority of affected people live in countries in Africa, the risk of famine is global. Acute hunger is set to rise steeply in most world regions, from the Middle East to Latin America and the Caribbean.

Famines tend to occur in areas where humanitarian access is restricted. In Yemen and South Sudan in particular, conflict, insecurity and resulting displacement are driving acute hunger to alarming levels.

As well as in those two countries, people in the northern parts of Ethiopia and Nigeria are also at particular risk, according to the Hunger Hotspots report, published jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme. 

Globally, 48.9 million people are currently on the very edge of famine and risk starvation, up from 27 million people in 2019.

children are eating their food
South Sudan: Children in Akobo East, Jonglei, take a lunch of sorghum with a local fruit — famine was last declared in the country in 2017. Photo: WFP/Marwa Awad
 

How can we stop famine?

WFP has the expertise and reach to help avoid acute hunger and prevent famines from occurring, through various approaches.

How WFP fights famine

Emergency food assistance

The most powerful tool that WFP can deploy to save lives in the face of famine is emergency food assistance, both in-kind and cash-based. In Yemen, WFP’s largest-ever scale up of food assistance, from 1 million people in 2015 to nearly 13 million helped avert famine in 2019.

Technology

The most powerful tool that WFP can deploy to save lives in the face of famine is emergency food assistance, both in-kind and cash-based. In Yemen, WFP’s largest-ever scale up of food assistance, from 1 million people in 2015 to nearly 13 million helped avert famine in 2019.

Logistics & supply chain

WFP’s logistics and supply chain capabilities can move huge quantities of food to where they’re most needed — in extreme cases using airdrops and airlifts. On any given day, WFP has 5,000 trucks, 20 ships and 92 planes on the move; every year WFP distributes more than 15 billion food rations.

Longer-term thinking

Eliminating the threat of starvation and preventing famine entirely will require longer term and more complex interventions, including strengthening education, nutrition, livelihood resilience and social protection systems such as school meals programmes.

Famine is never inevitable – with proper planning and coordination, it can be prevented and millions of lives can be saved. We deploy a variety of tools to both prevent and respond to famine. Here is a selection.

The tools we use

Rapid Response Mechanism

WFP has rolled this tool out in South Sudan and northeast Nigeria, among other countries, allowing mobile response teams to reach people in remote, isolated areas. Travelling usually by helicopter, they register people so WFP can transport food, nutrition supplies and other assistance by road, river or airdrops.

Hunger Map Live

The map deploys artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics to predict and track the magnitude and severity of hunger in close to real time in more than 90 countries.

Emergency Service Marketplace

This mechanism makes WFP’s expertise in supply chain, engineering, IT and administration available to the wider humanitarian community in times of crisis.

Now is the time to act

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