Action Against Hunger responds to famine in South Sudan

5 facts you need to know about famine

Over a million children are at risk of famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. But what is famine?


By Action Against Hunger

Feb 21 2018

1)    Famines are a deadly tipping point

south sudan is in a state of famine© Guy Calaf for Action Against Hunger

The word famine is used to describe a hunger crisis at its worst. It is a scourge that has plagued the world for hundreds of years. However, it can only be declared when the following criteria is met:

  • 20% of the population has fewer than 2,100 kilocalories of food a day
  • Acute malnutrition affects more than 30% of children
  • There are two deaths per 10,000 people, or four deaths per 10,000 children every day

The first victims of famine are children, as they are the first to be impacted by malnutrition. 

2)    Famines don’t happen suddenly

Action Against Hunger is working to help people in Somalia© Khadija Farah for Action Against Hunger

“We have the tools and data to anticipate and take action before it is too late. It is unacceptable for the international community to wait for crises to dramatically deteriorate before mobilising an adequate response.”  - Rebeckah Piotrowski, Action Against Hunger

Famine is a drawn-out, agonising process. It evolves slowly and often remains underreported for months and years as families endure long-term crippling hardship before a famine enters the headlines. Unfortunately, only when a crisis reaches a harrowing stage is it that large-scale emergency responses are launched to contain the spread of famine.

The rapid advance of technology now allows for detailed analysis, access to invaluable data and dadvanced warning systems to help humaniarian organisations spot the signs of deteriorating food insecurity. This evidence-based analysis helps relief agencies, Governments and decision-makers plan for and respond to humanitarian crises.

3)    Famine should not happen in the 21st century

A girl in Yemen retrieves safe, clean drinking water© Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger

Until the middle of the 20th century, famine and mass starvation killed millions of people every decade. Since then, great progress has been made and calamitous famines – those that cause more than 1 million deaths – have been eliminated. 

This is because the adoption of international human rights and a more interconnected world have made it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to children dying from hunger. The huge drop in death tolls can also be attributed to more scrutiny and monitoring of hunger crises by humanitarian organisations and civil society since the 1970s, who have worked to minimise the death toll from famine and hold leaders accountable for their actions to prevent hunger. This is a major unheralded achievement.  

4)    A human problem - A human solution

The warning signs for famine are impossible to miss. Yemen.© Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger

“Famines are manmade. The warning signs are impossible to miss. The world shares a collective responsibility to take action today to prevent people from sliding even deeper into tragedy. The time to act is now: we cannot deny children a future.” - Jean-Michel Grand, Executive Director, Action Against Hunger

Famine and hunger are not inevitable. They are frequently man-made due to conflict, violence, underdevelopment and climate change. However, with man-made disasters, there are also man-made solutions.


5)    Over 76 million people will be in need of emergency food assistance in 2018

Action Against Hunger is providing treatment and care for people suffering famine in Nigeria© Guy Calaf for Action Against Hunger

While progress has been made and famine is being challenged worldwide, people are currently facing rising hunger in Ethiopia, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan. The crisis came to the fore in February 2017 when famine was declared in South Sudan, the first time it was declared across the world since 2011.

The crisis across all four countries is due to climate change, conflict, blockade by land, air and sea, and the use of food as a weapon of war by factions fighting on the ground. The fatal synergy of these problems has had a dramatic impact on people's ability to access food and farm their lands, which has been catastrophic for families and left nearly one million children at the brink of starvation.


What We Do

  • We evaluate needs when famine hits. Our assessment teams evaluate the immediate needs of affected populations so we can launch the most appropriate response.
  • We provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance by treating malnourished children within their communities while improving access to clean water and sanitation. We help build pumps and wells for long-term use to provide sustainable sources of sanitation and clean water.
  • We establish partnerships with local government agencies, partners and community leaders to bring efficient, effective relief to communities affected by famine.
Famine looms in four countries
Famine looms in four countries

Children's lives at risk

Emergency in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan

Headline photo - © Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger