The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale defines famine as 'an extreme deprivation of food' Famine is the fifth and highest phase of the scale, with the IPC defining it as "an extreme deprivation of food".

Starving: What is hunger?

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale defines hunger as “extreme food deprivation”. Hunger is the fifth and highest phase of the scale, with the IPC defining it as “extreme food deprivation”. – Copyright AFP JAVIER TORRES


On Monday, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths warned that Somalia was on the verge of famine for the second time in just over a decade.

Here is an exploration of the term that causes the worst human suffering.

– What is hunger? –

“Hunger” is a word permeated with the horror of hunger and deprivation, dating back to the dawn of mankind.

However, more recently it has been scientifically codified to help politicians and focus humanitarian aid.

As of 2004, global agencies are expected to use the term only in accordance with the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale.

Hunger is the fifth and highest stage of the scale and is defined by the IPC as “extreme food deprivation”.

“Hunger, death, poverty and extremely critical levels of acute malnutrition are or are likely to be evident.”

On the IPC scale, hunger exists when at least 20 percent of households in a given area have extremely limited access to basic foodstuffs; at least 30 per cent of children suffer from acute malnutrition; and two people out of every 10,000 die every day “due to direct starvation or a combination of malnutrition and disease”.

– Where were the famines? –

Over the past century, famine has struck China, the Soviet Union, Iran, and Cambodia, often as a result of human action.

Europe experienced several hunger strikes in the Middle Ages, but the most recent was during World Wars I and II, when parts of Germany, Poland and the Netherlands were left to starve under military blockades.

There have been several famines in Africa in recent decades, from Biafra in Nigeria in the late 1960s to the Ethiopian famine of 1983–1985, which ushered in a new form of celebrity fundraising and unprecedented media attention to suffering.

Famine was last declared in South Sudan in 2017 in Leer and Mayendit districts, areas that have often been hotbeds of violence.

In Somalia, the 2011 famine in the southern and central regions of the country killed about 260,000 people, half of them children under the age of six.

Griffiths, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said Monday that famine is likely in two areas of south-central Somalia, Baidoa and Burhakabe, between October and December.

– What are the reasons? –

Throughout history, famines have typically been caused by human action, usually wars, that have destroyed crops and livestock, disrupted trade, displaced people, and made it difficult to distribute aid.

The famine “represents a setback on many sides,” Daniel Maxwell, a professor of food security at Tufts University in the US, told AFP.

“Currently, in areas at risk of famine (Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen, northeast Nigeria), violent conflict is the common denominator, but climate factors are playing an increasingly important role,” Maxwell said.

“Even in the context of armed conflict, drought has been a factor in all recent famines in Somalia.”

A dry country whose impoverished population depends on livestock and agriculture, Somalia is considered one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change.

In recent years, the devastation caused by the locust infestation and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the instability caused by the jihadist insurgency, have been compounded by increasingly extreme droughts and floods.

How does hunger kill? –

According to a 1997 hunger strike study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), when a lack of food leads to an 18 percent weight loss, physiological disorders begin in the body.

When people go malnourished for weeks, it leads to organ failure and eventually death.

“In most cases of modern famine, most people don’t literally starve to death,” Maxwell said.

“In crowded settings, deadly diseases such as cholera or measles are more likely to be the actual cause of death, especially among young children. Unfortunately, there have already been outbreaks of both cholera and measles in Somalia this year.”

Lack of food weakens the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to disease, and drought-displaced people often live in makeshift camps with poor hygiene and limited access to drinking water.

“Between starvation and death, there is almost always disease,” the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

Hunger leads to stunted growth and affects cognitive development, and can also lead to poor health throughout a person’s life.

Even before reaching famine, parts of Africa go through regular cycles of famine that have long-term social consequences.

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