Comprehending Famine

“Famine and hunger are both rooted in food insecurity.”*

Food insecurity means not knowing where the next meal is coming from.”**

We know that famine is bad. But how bad is it? How does famine happen? What does it take for a region to be declared a region of famine?

The UN ranks a region or country’s “stage” of food security on a scale from 1 to 5, famine being the worst — the Category 5 Hurricane of food insecurity. These are the names and ranks of the stages determined, explained and published by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Food Security Programme. It’s called the Integrated Food Security and Humanitarian Phase Classification (IPC).

  • Stage 1 – Generally Food Secure
  • Stage 2 – Chronically / Moderately Food Insecure
  • Stage 3 – Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis
  • Stage 4 – Humanitarian Emergency
  • Stage 5 – Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe

Stage 1 – “Generally Food Secure”

General Food Security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.  

The regions at this stage have adequate and stable food access. The hunger-related mortality rate is less than 1 person per 20,000 people per day. Malnutrition is rare and vulnerable to disease and other food insecurity hazards is relatively low.

Stage 2 – “Chronically Food Insecure”

Chronic Food Insecurity exists when people are unable to meet there minimum food requirements over a sustained period of time.

Regions at this stage are often occupied by people experiencing extended periods of poverty, lack of assets and inadequate access to productive or financial resources.

Stage 3 – “Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis”

An analysis of livelihood zones allows for a better understanding of how people within a given livelihood system typically source their food and income, so that the attributes of a given crisis are defined based on an understanding of specific hazards, vulnerabilities and causes. 

Given a particular region’s particular livelihood dynamics and their links to food security, this stage is declared to emphasize the need for food security interventions during all phases, not just when an emergency breaks out.

Stage 4: Humanitarian Emergency

To earn stage 4 status, a region must have a crude mortality rate of 1 or 2 people per 10,000 people per day, and increasing due to starvation. Prevalence of Acute Malnutrition must be over 15% and increasing. Disease is pandemic and food access restricted enough to make it impossible to consume 2,100 calories per day. Dietary diversity is regularly restricted to 2-3 or fewer main food groups consumed. 

It is important to emphasize that this state of “Emergency” is not famine. The above criteria do not constitute a famine and would not be considered the worst of all possible scenarios. Therefore, Humanitarian Emergencies, more common than famines, of course, do not receive the kind of attention that these dire circumstances might deserve.

Stage 5: Famine / Humanitarian Catastrophe

“It is a very strong word, with a strong impact,” — Brendan Paddy, UK Disasters Emergency Committee

A crisis is only described as a famine when the meets the following criteria:

    • at least 20% of the population has access to fewer than 2,100 Calories of food per day
    • more than 30% of children are suffering acute malnutrition
    • a crude mortality rate of 2 deaths per 10,000 people per day OR 4 child deaths per 10,000 children per day
    • less than 4 liters of water is available per person per day

As a result, destitution and displacement occur on a massive scale in a concentrated area, creating widespread civil insecurity and increasing chances of high intensity conflict. The assets of virtually every person who survives are completely lost. It does not matter how many assets a person or family once had, the effect of famine is complete collapse of livelihood. 

For perspective: if famine were declared at Boston College — affecting only our undergraduate population of about 9,200 students — at least two undergrads would die every day of the week, with one person skipping Sunday.

As of September 15, 2011, the refugee camps in famine-stricken Somalia’s neighboring countries housed over 920,000 (100 times the undergrad population of BC) with some camps reporting a crude mortality rate of 7.4 deaths per 10,000 people per day. That’s over 1,400 deaths per week.***

The UN declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia on July 20, 2011, months after devastating drought in the Horn of Africa started threatening the established food security of an estimated 10 million people. In mid-August, the UN confirmed that a cholera epidemic was sweeping across the country. The declared famine continues and now includes a total of six regions. Today is the 91st day of the famine and as of October 18, humanitarian groups are still targeting 4,000,000 — 4 million — food insecure people throughout the country (which doesn’t include refugee camps outside of it). ****

What is famine? The worst of all possible scenarios. Unlike a Category 5 Hurricane, famine does not end with the passing of a storm. There are no homes to return to, flooded or otherwise. There are no roads that lead to safety. There is no time to bury the dead, nor the strength to dig the graves. Famine does not end. It must be ended.

* Melaku Ayalew–What is Food Security and Famine and Hunger?



****United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Somalia – Famine and Drought Situation Report No. 18. 1. Access at

For an application of the IPC framework in Somalia, go to


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