Famine killed nearly 75 million people in the 20th century, but had virtually disappeared in recent decades. Now, suddenly, it is back. In late February a famine was declared in South Sudan, and warnings of famine have also recently been issued for Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.
Moreover, in January the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) - a U.S. government-funded organization created in 1985 specifically to predict famines and humanitarian emergencies - estimated that 70 million people affected by conflicts or disasters worldwide will need food assistance in 2017. This number has increased by nearly 50 percent in just the past two years.
What explains this rapid rise in the number of people who need emergency food assistance? And why, in an era of declining poverty and hunger worldwide, are we suddenly facing four potential famines in unconnected countries?
What are famines?
Famines are extreme events in which large populations lack adequate access to food, leading to widespread malnutrition and deaths. More of these deaths are caused by infectious disease than starvation because severe malnutrition compromises human immune systems. This makes people much more susceptible to killer diseases such as measles, or even common conditions such as diarrhea. Young children are especially vulnerable.