Famine Trends Dataset, 2017 

Graph indicating incidents of faminogenic behaviour and famine, by decade from 1870 to 2010.
Graph indicating incidents of faminogenic behaviour and famine, by decade from 1870 to 2010 (World Peace Foundation, 2017).

The Famine Trends dataset includes two kinds of overlapping events, which have hitherto largely been studied separately. First, are great and catastrophic famines. A famine is defined as a food crisis that causes elevated mortality over a specific period of time. Using the criteria developed by Stephen Devereux (Devereux 2000) for ‘great famines’ (100,000 or more excess deaths) and ‘catastrophic famines’ (one million or more excess deaths), it includes any famine for which the upper estimate of excess deaths falls above 100,000.

Second, using the four-point scale for ‘famine crimes’ developed by David Marcus (2003), the dataset also includes episodes of mass intentional starvation. For these events, the threshold is 10,000 deaths by starvation for inclusion in the listing. However, only events of mass intentional starvation that caused over 100,000 deaths are included in the quantitative dataset, on which the graphs are based.

There are major methodological issues with the estimation of excess mortality. Generally speaking, better demographic calculations lead to lower estimations of excess deaths than those provided by journalists and other contemporary observers. We might therefore reasonably expect an upward bias in the figures for earlier famines on the record. On the other hand, contemporary definitions of famine (e.g. Howe and Devereux 2004) provide thresholds for nutrition and mortality that correspond with normal or near-normal conditions in many historic societies (see Ó Gráda 2015, pp. 174-5).

This research is part of WPF’s History and Future of Famine program.

Research was led by Alex de Waal with Aditya Sarkar.

Tables and Graphs

Graph 1: Famine Mortality by decade: 1870-2010    This graph plots worldwide famine mortality between 1870 and 2010, by decade.Famines and episodes of forcible mass starvation have killed 104.3 million people since 1870. The main trend, however, is downwards. In each decade between the 1870s and the 1970s, great famines killed between 1.45 million and 16.64 million, at an average of about 927,810 per year. The last calamitous famine was Cambodia in 1975-79. Since 1980, the annual death toll in great famines has averaged 75,217, or about 8 per cent of the historic level.

Graph 2: World Population Growth and Death Toll from Great Famines: 1870-2010    The decline in famines is inversely correlated with the growth in world population, from about 1.3 billion in 1870 to 7 billion today.

Graph 3: Famine Mortality by Region and Decade: 1870-2010    The history of great famines can be classified into 4 broad periods: (a) famines of European colonialism (till about 1914); (b) the extended period of the world wars and accompanying mass starvation (from 1914 till about 1950); (c) famines caused by totalitarianism (including the famine caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward), and (d) Decline and smaller famines and humanitarian crises since the 1970’s (primarily in sub-Saharan Africa). 

Graph 3: Famine Mortality by Region and Decade: 1870-2010    The history of great famines can be classified into 4 broad periods: (a) famines of European colonialism (till about 1914); (b) the extended period of the world wars and accompanying mass starvation (from 1914 till about 1950); (c) famines caused by totalitarianism (including the famine caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward), and (d) Decline and smaller famines and humanitarian crises since the 1970’s (primarily in sub-Saharan Africa).

Graph 4b: Regional distribution of famine deaths: 1870-2010    This chart demonstrates the same information as above (4a).

Graph 5: Famine mortality associated with armed conflict and political repression: 1870-2010    The vast majority of famine deaths were association with conflict or political repression. 35.2 million occurred in wartime, with a further 1.7 million in countries emerging from armed conflict. 42.43 million deaths occurred in famines under active political repression such as repressive colonial rule or dictatorship. A smaller number, 24.975 million deaths, was associated with neither.

Graph 6: Famine deaths and faminogenic behaviour

Following David Marcus (2003), we categorize ‘faminogenic acts’ on a four-point scale:

  • First degree famine crimes: Governments or other authorities that deliberately use famine as a tool of extermination or a means of forcing a population to submit to their control. These killed 8.3 million people, 7.9 percent.
  • Second degree famine crimes: Public authorities pursue policies that are the principal cause of famine, and continue to pursue these policies even after becoming aware that they result in famine. These killed 63.7 million, 61 percent, in all continents except the Americas, and in every time period.  
  • Third degree of culpable famine causation: Public authorities are indifferent: their policies may not be the principal cause of famine, but they do little or nothing to alleviate hunger. These killed 19.1 million, 18.3 percent.
  • Fourth degree or non-culpability: Incapable or incapacitated authorities, faced with food crises caused by external factors (climatic, economic, etc.), are unable to respond effectively to needs. These killed 13.3 million, 12.8 percent.

Graph 7: Famine deaths, armed conflict and faminogenic behaviour: 1870-2010    This graph disaggregates famine mortality, by plotting the number (and proportion) of deaths that took place during conditions of war and repression, and the faminogenic behavior of governments during that period. As expected, we find that first and second degree faminogenic acts only took place during war or political repression.

Graph 7: Famine deaths, armed conflict and faminogenic behaviour: 1870-2010

This graph disaggregates famine mortality, by plotting the number (and proportion) of deaths that took place during conditions of war and repression, and the faminogenic behavior of governments during that period. As expected, we find that first and second degree faminogenic acts only took place during war or political repression. 

Graph 8: Famine mortality and faminogenic behaviour by decade: 1870-2010

This graph disaggregates famine mortality attributable to the 4 degree of faminogenic behaviour, by decade.

Graph 9: Global risk of death from famine: 1870-2010    This graph plots the ratio of global mortality from great famines and the total population of the world, to formulate a very rough estimate of the risk of death from famine, on average, across the world. The trend is downwards, with a sharp decline after the 1960s.

Graph 10: Incidents of famine caused by conflict: 1870-2010

This graph plots the total number of famines that can be attributed to war or political repression between 1870-2010. Nearly half of all famines in this period occurred during active armed conflict, 26.23 percent of all famines took place during conditions of active political repression, and 3.28% of famines occurred in countries emerging from conflict. Only 21.31% of famines occurred in countries with no conflict or political repression

Graph 11: Incidents of faminogenic behaviour

This graph plots the total incidents of 1st to 4th degree faminogenic acts between 1870-2010. In our catalog,  more than half of all great famines (33 instances, or about 54.1 percent) were attributable to second degree faminogenic behaviour. 

Graph 12: Incidents of famine attributable to conflict and political repression by decade: 1870-2010

This graph plots (by decade) famines attributable to active armed conflict, political repression, occurring in countries emerging from armed conflict and in countries with no conflict or political repression.

Graph 13: Incidents of faminogenic behaviour by decade: 1870-2010

This graphs plots famines attributable to the different degrees of faminogenic behaviour (i.e. 1st – 4th degree) by decade. 

Graph 14: Famine incidents by decade, 1870-2010 


1870-71PersiaEconomic crisis, drought500,000-1.5 millionForan 1989, Okasaki 1986
1876-1879China (Shanxi, Henan, Shandong, Zhili, and Shaanxi)Drought, lack of state capacity due to rebellion & colonialism9mEdgerton-Tarpley, 2008; Fuller, 2015; Davis, 2002; Li, 2007.
1870sIndiaDrought, colonialism6mDavis, 2002
1876-79BrazilDrought, economic crisis500,000Cunniff, 1970
1885-99CongoColonialism, forced labor3mHochschild, 1998; Acherson 1999
1888-89India (Ganjam)Drought, colonialism150,000Dyson, 1989
1888-92EthiopiaDrought, war, rinderpest1mPankhurst, 1968
1888-92SudanDrought, war2mde Waal, 1989
1891-92RussiaDrought, economic crisis275,000Robbins, 1970
1896-7IndiaDrought, colonialism5.5mDyson, 1989
1897-1901ChinaDrought, economic crisis, colonial warfare, internal rebellion1mMallory, 1926; Li, 2007; Esherick, 1987; Cohen, 1997.
1896-1900BrazilDrought, economic crisis1mSmith, 1946
1899-1901IndiaDrought, colonialism1mDyson, 1989
1899-1902S Africa[1]Boer War camps42,000Carver, 2000
1904-07Namibia[2]Genocide34-110,000Olusoga and Ericsen, 2011
1905-7TanganyikaRepression of rebellion200,000Iliffe, 1979
1906-7IndiaDrought, colonialism250,000Dyson, 1989
1913-14SahelDrought, colonial conquest125,000Schove, 1977
1914-16East AfricaWar300,000Paice, 2007
1915-18Greater Syria (including Lebanon)War, blockade, locusts350,000Schilcher, 1992 p.229; Antonius 1946, p.241; Fawaz 2015     
1915-16Turkey (Armenians)Genocide, forced deportation400,000Morgenthau, 1918; Gilbert 1994; Suny, 2015; Kevorkian 2011
1917-18GermanyBlockade763,000Vincent, 1985
1917-19PersiaWar, drought455,200Afkhami, 2003
1919ArmeniaPost-conflict200,000Hovannisian 1971 p. 130
1920-21China (Henan, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi,    Zhili (Hebei))Drought, economic crisis500,000Mallory, 1926; Fuller, 2013; Peking United International Famine Relief Committee, 1922; Li, 2007
1921-22RussiaCivil war1m-10m (5m official)Lowe 2002; Patenaude 2002, pp. 196-8.
1928-30China (NW – Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Shandong and Zhili (Hebei))Drought, War between Chiang Kai-Shek and warlords5.5m – 10mLi, 2007, p. 304; Fuller, 2015
1929-30China (Hunan)Drought, war2mDevereux, 2000; Becker, 1996; Ó Gráda, 2009
1930-31Libya[3]Concentration camps50,000Baldinetti, 2014
1932-34USSR (Ukraine)Collectivization3.3mSnyder, 2012
1932-34USSR (Russia, Kazakhstan)Collectivization1.5mSnyder, 2012
1934, 1936-7China (Sichuan)War, economic crisis5mÓ Gráda, 2008; Wright, 2000
1941-44Hunger Plan[4]
 Germany/USSRStarvation of Russian POW’s by the Wehrmacht2.6mSnyder, 2012
 Germany/USSRSiege of Leningrad1mSnyder, 2012; Collingham 2012
 Germany/USSRDeaths of Soviet Citizens due to starvation in the USSR, including those killed in the occupation of Kiev and Kharkiv1mSnyder, 2012
 PolandDeath of residents of the Warsaw Ghetto from starvation83,000United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
1941-50Germany/USSRDeath of German POWs in Soviet captivity1.1mWorld Peace Foundation forthcoming
1941-2GreeceBlockade300,000Mazower, 1993
1942-3China (Henan)War1.5mMuscolino 2015; Garnaut, 2013
1941-45East Asia (various locations)Japanese soldiers who died of malnutrition and starvation1.044mCollingham 2012
1942-45IndonesiaJapanese occupation2.4mVan der Eng, 2008
1943India (Bengal)Govt wartime policy2.1mDyson & Maharatna, 1991
1943-44RwandaDrought300,000Devereux, 2000
1944-45VietnamJapanese occupation2mGunn, 2011
1945-47Eastern EuropeReprisals against Germans250,000Lowe, 2013
1947USSR (Moldova and other areas)Food shortage and policy600,000-1.5mGanson, 2009; Ó Gráda 2015, pp. 12-13.
1958EthiopiaDrought100,000Wolde Mariam, 1986
1958-62ChinaGovt policies18.5-32mAshton et al. 1984; Peng 1987; Ó Gráda 2015, p. 159;
1966Ethiopia[5]Drought50,000Wolde Mariam, 1986
1969-70NigeriaWar/blockade500,000Leitenberg, 2006
1970-73Sahel[6]Drought0-101,000de Waal, 1989
1972-73India (Maharashtra)[7]Drought130,000Dyson 1991; Devereux, 2000
1973EthiopiaDrought200,000Wolde Mariam, 1986
1974BangladeshFlood, cyclones, economic crisis1.5mAlamgir, 1980
1975-78East TimorConflict104,000Van Klinken, 2012
1975-9CambodiaYear Zero1.21mKiernan, 2008
1983-5EthiopiaWar, drought600,000de Waal, 1997
1984-5Sudan (Darfur, Kordofan, Red Sea)Drought, economic crisis240,000de Waal, 1989
1988Sudan (South)War100,000Burr, 1998
1992-3SomaliaWar220,000Hansch et al., 1994
1991-1999IraqSanctions, war and dictatorship166,000-300,000Garfield 1999; Ali and Shah 2000.
1995-7North KoreaFood shortage and govt policy240,000-600,000Goodkind et al., 2011; Spoorenberg and Schwekendiek 2012
1998-2002Democratic Republic of CongoWar290,500-5.4 millionRoberts et al. 2000, 2001, 2003; Coghlan et al. 2006, 2007.
1998-9Sudan (South)War100,000Medley, 2010; Burr. 1998
2003-05Sudan (Darfur)War200,000Government Accountability Office, 2006
2003-06UgandaWar100,000Mazurana et al. 2014
2011Somalia[8]Drought, war164,000Checchi and Robinson 2013; Maxwell and Nisar, 2015


We note that a famine (caused by drought, floods and economic crisis) in Anhui and Jiangsu provinces of China is reported to have resulted in the deaths of 24 million people in 1907 (Kte’pi, 2011) but were unable to find any other sources to corroborate this. Consequently, we have not included this in our famine data.

[1] We do not include this in our dataset.

[2] We do not include this in our dataset, as the death toll may not have crossed 50,000.

[3] We do not include this in our dataset, as the death toll may not have crossed 50,000.

[4] The ‘Hunger Plan’ includes all episodes of mass starvation associated with the Eastern Front 1941-5, including the starvation of Jews. The total numbers who died of starvation on account of the Hunger Plan and the Final Solution is undoubtedly well in excess of the total in these lines. Starvation deaths in the Warsaw Ghetto are included because it is classified within the Hunger Plan.

[5] We do not include this in our quantitative data.

[6] We do not include this in our quantitative data.

[7] We do not include this in our quantitative data.

[8] We generate our quantitative results on the basis of the episodes of famine between 1870-2010; as a consequence we do not include this episode in our quantitative dataset.


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