Famine | ActionAid UK


Famine is not inevitable but a result of food crisis not being addressed in time. In countries at high-risk of food shortage ActionAid supports vulnerable people to increase their capacity to cope, and when a situation becomes severe, we respond with emergency supplies as fast as possible. Find out what causes famine and food crises, and the countries most affected.

What is famine?

Famine is when lack of access to food has become so severe that people are dying as a consequence of not having enough to eat – usually children and the elderly first.

In 2006, a technical classification was introduced defining five different levels of food insecurity, called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale, ranging from ‘Level 1 – Minimal’ to ‘Level 5 – Famine’.

According to the IPC scale, famine exists when:

  • at least 20 per cent of households face a complete lack of food, and starvation, death and destitution are evident;
  • at least three in every 10 people show signs of acute malnutrition;
  • and the death rate exceeds two per 10,000 people per day for the entire population.

What causes famine?

The most common circumstances that lead to famine are crop failure, drought and prolonged armed conflict. However, it is not the drought or conflict themselves that cause famine; it is the lack of an adequate response to the drought or conflict that causes famine.

Once famine has been declared it is too late; thousands of people will already have been seriously and irreversibly affected and people will already be dying. It is therefore essential to recognise the warning signs early and for governments and the international community to respond immediately, and effectively, so that the situation never reaches the devastating scale of a famine.

Food aid, Kenya

A lorry load of food aid arrives in Nguni town, Kyuso District, Eastern Kenya for ActionAid’s Food For Assets programme. Beneficiaries received a ration each month in exchange for 12 days work on projects that improve farmland or harvest rainfall.

Photo: Danielle Peck/ActionAid

Famine and food crisis in 2017

There are several food crises happening across Africa and Yemen in 2017. Famine was declared in South Sudan in February 2017, and there is a credible risk of another three famines in Yemen, North East Nigeria and Somalia, where ActionAid works in the autonomous region of Somaliland.

In East Africa, over 16 million people are facing devastating food shortages caused by sustained drought and conflict, including Kenya and Ethiopia, where ActionAid also works. The drought has caused crops to fail and cattle to die.

Drought: the human impact

Life is changing dramatically for people in drought affected parts of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. People have very little food to eat and many are eating one meal a day or less.

Following the failure of the rains in late 2016, crops are scarce and livestock (goats, sheep, cattle and camels) are weak and dying. In the worst affected parts of Somaliland, up to 80 per cent of livestock have died, in a country which derives 60 to 65 per cent of its GDP from livestock production.

With little available, people are getting desperate. They are resorting to eating leaves and other foods unsuited for humans and lacking in nourishment. People unable to find food or water at home are now on the move. In Somalia, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports the drought has caused 135,000 people to flee from home since November 2016.

The severe lack of water means many people are prioritising using water for drinking over water for bathing, washing clothes or cleaning utensils. Poor sanitation significantly worsens the health of the already hungry and weak, often increasing conditions like diarrhoea.

Girls are dropping out of school to help their families find water. Mothers are eating less than one meal a day, as they give what little they have to their children.

ActionAid’s East Africa Crisis Appeal

ActionAid local staff are working with communities to deliver life-saving supplies including food and water. We are also prioritising the empowerment and protection of women.

Last time famine hit Somalia, a quarter of a million people died. We must act fast.

With your help we can stop this crisis turning into a catastrophe.


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Why are women and girls worst affected by famine?

Women and girls are nearly always hit hardest in emergencies, and famine is no exception. Malnutrition, weakened immune systems and the resulting spread of disease put an additional strain on women’s traditional responsibility as care givers.

Fetching water becomes much more physically challenging as mums like Nimo travel further and further afield in their search. As a result, we have seen mothers taking their daughters out of school to help them carry their heavy load.

Displacement, conflict and having to walk longer distances all increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to violence and sexual assault.

Within the home, women can also often face aggression and domestic violence as the burden to find food and water increases, and results in strained family relationships.

Often, owing to cultural customs, women eat last and least and have access to fewer options to migrate, access aid, information and credit.

ActionAid’s policy manager in Kenya, Ruth Masime, says:

As a result of the drought women and girls face a triple burden in some cases: to survive, care for their families and evade sexual violence in the process. Urgent action is needed to avert severe hunger, sexual violence and community breakdown.” 

What is the cause of the East Africa crisis?

A complicated set of circumstances, including the cumulative impact of two successive droughts as a result of two climate phenomena – El Niño and the Indian Ocean Dipole – and in some places a long period of conflict and insecurity that has forced people to flee their land and slowed economic and social development, have left millions at risk of hunger across the region.

There has been widespread crop failure and livestock death in the worst affected areas, causing families to sell their few remaining assets, such as livestock, and to leave their homes in search of food and water.  

This diminished food production, combined with more systemic issues of long-term failure to invest in agriculture and alternative livelihoods, has further exhausted people’s capacity to cope with another shock.

ActionAid’s approach to famine

As with all emergencies, ActionAid has a two-pronged approach: resilience and response.

In high-risk countries ActionAid works with vulnerable communities to improve their ability to cope with drought. We:

  • train people to improve their agricultural practices;
  • help people, especially women, to create alternative livelihoods;
  • provide people with sustainable water sources.

Once the situation looks like it’s becoming too severe for people to cope or adapt, it is crucial to launch an emergency response to get them basic food supplies as quickly as possible. We:

  • distribute urgently needed food and water to families at risk;
  • make sure that women and girls can safely access food and water;
  • support women and girls at risk of sexual violence;
  • and we help survivors of violence get the medical help they need.

The importance of acting early

Many studies have shown that an early response is significantly more effective than a later emergency intervention: it saves lives, minimises the devastating long-term consequences and costs less to deliver.

For people who are already hungry, immediate action to provide aid will prevent more serious long-term problems, such as children developing chronic malnutrition that could lead to poor health throughout their life, and farmers selling their animals or farming tools for food, meaning they no longer have a way to earn a living.

For people who are currently at risk, early action and preparedness is needed to build their ability to cope now and reduce the need for emergency aid in the future.

We must act now

That’s why we urgently need more funds to scale up our response to the crisis in East Africa in 2017. Without sufficient support, the crisis may become catastrophic. Please give what you can now. Every donation means we can save more lives before it’s too late.

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Page updated 22 May 2019