The “Four Famines,” Explained

Hunger will be the humanitarian disaster of 2017.

 The UN already declared a full fledged famine in parts of South Sudan last month, and three other situations around the world are precariously close to crossing a threshold of food insecurity that leads to famine. The humanitarian community is calling these “the four famines.”

As many as 20 million lives hang in the balance.

How is food security measured and “Famine” Declared?

Food security can be measured by a variety of different factions. On the international level, organizations use what is called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification to determine the level of food insecurity in a specific area. The IPS system examines food prices, harvest yields, average income changes and household food neediness in determining which phase an area falls under. However generally, it is this last factor that most people associate with food security.

The levels of food security, as determined by the IPS

It is level 5 – catastrophe – that is an actual famine. This means that 20 percent of households are facing extreme food shortages, 30 percent of the population faces acute malnourishment and there are 2 hunger-related deaths per 10,000 people per day.

The other two important categories are phase 3 (crisis) and phase 4 (emergency), which are the forbearers of this most extreme classification.

South Sudan

On 14 August 2016 in the Protection of Civilians (POC) site near Bentiu, in Unity State, South Sudan, children play at dusk. Credit: UNMISS

The UN did declare last month that parts of former Unity State, South Sudan are now in famine. That impacts an estimated 100,000 people in that state, but more concerning is the estimated 1 million South Sudanese who are quickly approaching this level of catastrophe.

At independence in 2011, South Sudan was already one of the poorest countries in the world. Decades of war with Sudan left very little infrastructure and meant the new country was chronically underdeveloped. When civil war broke out a year later, all these issues were compounded to create the fragile food security situation today.

Thus, without quick and sustained humanitarian intervention the famine in Unity State is likely to be a harbinger of what is to come.


On 12 August 2016 internally displaced children waiting for ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) distribution in Banki IDP camp, Borno state, northeast Nigeria. Photo: UNICEF/Andrew Esiebo

Like South Sudan, northern Nigeria has been engaged in years of violent conflict between the government and Boko Haram. The most impacted states – Borno and Yobe – are located in the Lake Chad basin, an area that has undergone dramatic environmental changes over the last 50 years. Overuse of water resources by farmers and climate change has shrunk Lake Chad by 98 percent since 1960, dramatically altering livelihoods and basic economic activity in the region.

Again, the conflict in the region has exacerbated these issues, leaving 4.7 million people in severe need of food aid. Most of the area is considered to be under Phase 4 “emergency” conditions, the precursor to famine. In fact, a report in December 2016 concluded that parts of Borno state were likely already in famine but the situation could not be confirmed with the limited access international organizations have in the area. Again, without prompt and sustained humanitarian intervention, most of the region will likely reach famine levels of food insecurity in the coming months.


A community health worker with UNICEF partner Swiss-Kaalmo, based in Salamey Idale IDP camp in Somalia, goes door to door to spread health messages to mothers and children living in the camp. Photo: UNICEF/Rich
A community health worker with UNICEF partner Swiss-Kaalmo, based in Salamey Idale IDP camp in Somalia, goes door to door to spread health messages to mothers and children living in the camp. Photo: UNICEF/Rich

Outside of Sudan and South Sudan there is perhaps no other country in Africa as “war torn” as Somalia. Located in the arid Horn of Africa region, the country is also no stranger to food insecurity. But ongoing conflict coupled with multiple years of drought and substandard harvests means that an estimated 2.9 million Somalis are expected to be at crisis or emergency levels of food security by the time peak lean season comes in June.

Right now most of the country is facing Phase 3 crisis levels with some small conflict-prone areas around Baydhabo already in Phase 4 emergency. In many ways, the current situation mirrors that of the 2010-2012 drought that ultimately created a famine throughout the country. Then, an estimated 265,000 people died as the international community was slow to respond and humanitarian access was extremely limited in parts of the country.

That experience reminds us of what is at stake and how quickly the crisis and emergency phases can develop into something far worse.


This photo shows Amal who is looking at her destroyed home in Sana’a after it was hit by an airstrike in April 2015. A girl looks at her destroyed home in Sana’a, Yemen. © UNICEF/UN018341/Jahaf

Across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia is Yemen, which the Famine Early Warning System Network calls “the largest food security emergency in the world.” A new report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization highlights that 6.8 million Yemenis are currently facing food emergency status with another 10.2 million in crisis. The numbers represent a 21 percent increase in hunger since June 2016, but also highlights how continuing food insecurity since the conflict there started in 2015 can compound over time.

More than the other conflicts examined here, Yemen also demonstrates the human consequences when food access becomes a weapon of war. In particular the port city of Hodeidah is a highly contested area by both the rebel Houthis and Saudi Arabia who is leading the Hadi-backed coalition. Prior to the war, 80 percent of all imports entered through the port. With Yemen heavily dependent on imports for most things, including 90 percent of its food, the continuous attacks on the port by both sides have crippled the food supply system without providing any real alternative.

Most Yemenis are facing increased food insecurity as food prices increase while wages decrease as a result of the war. But it is the estimated 2 million internally displaced persons who are most vulnerable. After having lost everything else, they are typically almost wholly dependent on food aid.

Why hunger will be the humanitarian crisis of 2017

If you were paying attention to the numbers above, you will have realized that 25.7 million people in just these four countries are in dire need of food aid for survival. That is a lot. But focusing on these four conflict countries obscures a wider problem unfolding throughout the African continent.

War makes everything harder, from planting and harvesting to getting food from place to place. But the food crises in South Sudan and Somalia are part of a wider drought brought upon by one of the strongest El Nino cycles in the past 50 years. In addition, millions of people in Kenya and Ethiopia are also facing severely decreased food security, with parts of Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi also being strained. Further afield, El Nino also brought the worst drought in southern Africa in 30 years, with an estimated 21.3 million in need of food aid.

In the Lake Chad basin, outside of Nigeria there are another 2.4 million people in desperate need of food aid in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. While part of this is linked to the conflict with Boko Haram, it is also linked to the wider environmental impacts the region is undergoing from climate change.

In other words, the UN declaration of famine last month will likely just be the first for 2017, not the last. Unfortunately, even though food aid is generally better supported than other areas of humanitarian aid, international aid to address the situation has been lacking. With traditional donor states such as the US and UK cutting their foreign aid budgets, the financial shortfall between what is needed and what is provided will only grow. International organizations can only help as many people as they have funding for. The Somali famine of 2010-2012 — which killed an estimated 260,000 people —  was supposed to serve as a lesson to the international community about ignoring these warning systems.

Right now, millions of people are counting on them to heed the call.