The IPC Famine Warning: What’s in a name?

grains of rice falling from a spoon into wooden bowl

Grain falling into woodden bowl, Adobe Stock Images

Yesterday, the IPC Global Initiative issued a special brief on food insecurity in Gaza. It is shocking. They warn of ‘imminent famine.’

USAID’s FEWS NET also provided a detailed analysis and confirmed the findings.

Let’s not be preoccupied with whether it’s ‘famine’ or not. It’s a disaster of surpassing intensity.

In January I wrote a backgrounder on the previous Gaza famine warning and the Integrated food security Phase Classification system, the metric used for measuring acute food insecurity.

Today, 95% of the population in Gaza is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. About 30% of the population is in ‘catastrophe’ and a further 40% in ‘emergency.’ The prediction is that half of the population will be in ‘catastrophe’ or ‘famine’ in the coming months.

These are the figures:

And these are the maps:


Compare the last occasion on which IPC data have been used to advise that ‘famine’ is occurring, South Sudan in 2017.


During South Sudan’s 2013-2018 war, about 190,000 people perished of hunger and disease. More than 95% were in areas classified as ‘emergency.’ Children die of hunger, disease and exposure when a location is classified as ‘emergency.’ In the paper that formulated the first famine intensity scale, a death rate of more than 1 per 10,000 per day was the threshold for ‘famine’, whereas in the IPC it is the threshold for ‘emergency.’

This graph shows how South Sudan’s increased mortality unfolded with large numbers of people in ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’, and relatively few in ‘catastrophe’ or ‘famine’:


In the 2011 famine in Somalia, the clearest case in recent decades, 490,000 people were in ‘catastrophe’.

Gaza has surpassed those numbers today. We have not seen starvation unfolding at this intensity and speed in a generation or more. The disaster is now.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

Stay Connected