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 a famine?

By Christine Kahmann

Mar 6 2017

1)    Famines are a deadly tipping point

The word famine is used to describe a hunger crisis at its worse. It can only be declared when the following three criteria are reached. These include:

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

Children are the first to be affected by malnutrition. Without help, they will not survive their next birthday. 

2)    Famines don’t happen overnight

Famines don’t happen suddenly. They evolve slowly and often remain underreported for months on end. Often, families have experienced months, if not years of crippling hardship before a crisis makes the headlines. Sadly, it is only when a situation reaches crisis point that large-scale emergency responses are being launched. Action Against Hunger and many other aid agencies are on the ground, saving lives. But needs are immense. Today's escalating food crises could have been prevented if the international community had taken action sooner. 

Ongoing analysis, data and warning systems have been telling us a consistent story, clearly signalling where large-scale humanitarian assistance is needed most acutely in the four countries currently at the brink of famine. 

“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

3)    Famine should not happen in the 21st century

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 norms 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 humanitarian organisations and the raise of civil society scrutiny who, since the 1970s, have worked hard to minimise the death toll from hunger crises and hold leaders accountable for their actions to prevent hunger. This is a major unheralded achievement. 

But whilst progress has been made, today over one million children are at risk of dying from hunger in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan. 

Conflict and its negative impact on people’s ability to access food and farm their lands has pushed nearly 20 million people over the edge. 

4)    A human problem - A human solution

Famine and hunger are not inevitable. They are human-made and can be ‘human-solved.’ Lack of action is a violation of the rights of millions of children the world over.

“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

5)    We can still save lives and prevent an even worse tragedy

Humanitarian organisations like Action Against Hunger are saving lives, helping thousands of children to survive.

Needs are immense and the survival of over a million children now depends on swift action. Without political solutions, respect for international humanitarian law, flexible funding and safe, unconditional access to populations in need, suffering will increase and more children will die.

But we must do more than just keep people alive. We must think about what’s next and get beyond the tunnel vision of traditional emergency response. We need to plan for solutions that help chart a course in which communities can rebuild and become more resilient to crises in the first place.


Famine looms in four countries
Famine looms in four countries

Children's lives at risk

Emergency in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan

Image: A. Parsons / i-Images for Action Against Hunger