In Summary
  • Over the last century, famines hit China, the Soviet Union, Iran and Cambodia, often the result of human actions.
  • The last famine in the world was in Somalia in 2011, which killed an estimated 260,000 people.
  • Last week South Sudan was declared famine.

From ancient Rome to modern times, mankind has suffered devastating periods of hunger caused by drought, war or misguided politics.

Last week South Sudan was declared the site of the world's first famine in six years, affecting about 100,000 people. Here is an exploration of a term that evokes the very worst of human suffering.

WHAT IS A FAMINE?

"Famine is not a word that we use lightly," said Erminio Sacco, a food security expert with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Since 2007 the term has been employed according to a scientific system agreed upon by global agencies, as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale.

According to the IPC scale, famine exists when at least 20 percent of the population in a specific area has extremely limited access to basic food; acute malnutrition exceeds 30 percent; and the death rate exceeds two per 10,000 people per day for the entire population.

"This scientific methodology helps to avoid famine becoming a term misused for political reasons," Sacco said.

WHERE HAVE FAMINES OCCURRED?

Over the last century, famines hit China, the Soviet Union, Iran and Cambodia, often the result of human actions.

Europe suffered several famines in the Middle Ages, but its most recent were during World War I and II, where parts of Germany, Poland and The Netherlands were left starving under military blockades.

In Africa there have been several famines in recent decades, from Biafra in Nigeria in the 1970s to the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine, which ushered in a new form of celebrity fundraising and unprecedented media attention on the suffering.

The last famine in the world was in Somalia in 2011, which killed an estimated 260,000 people.

WHY ARE THERE STILL FAMINES TODAY?

While South Sudan is officially experiencing famine, the UN has warned that Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are all on the verge of the classification, which could affect more than 20 million people.

Page 1 of 2