Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
What Is Famine? The Criteria for the Worst Famines
Throughout world history, a record number of famines have wreaked havoc on unsuspecting populations. Of those, some have proven to be far deadlier than others regarding size, scope, and overall magnitude. This work examines ten of the worst famines in history. It directly analyses each famine by discussing their origins, scope, and overall death tolls. The author hopes that a better understanding (and appreciation) of these unfortunate events will accompany readers following their completion of this work.
In selecting the ten worst famines in history, a number of criteria were necessary for the selection process. First and foremost, overall deaths from each famine served as the primary factor in selecting (and ranking) each of these global events. Although these figures were occasionally difficult to procure (due to a lack of hard evidence or official government statistics), the author remedied this deficiency by using accepted scholarly estimates for each tragedy.
In addition to the number of deaths caused by each famine, another important factor considered when ranking famines is their overall scope and magnitude (i.e. the number of individuals affected). Scholars often ignore this element, as immediate fatality rates always garner the most attention from observers.
However, a famine’s size and magnitude are crucial to understanding as the health and longevity of individuals are often directly affected by long periods of malnutrition. As such, famine-related deaths that occurred many years later were also included within the ranking process. While such numbers are impossible to calculate with pinpoint accuracy, the author remedied this deficiency (again) through an evaluation of scholarly estimates and statistics (when available).
While these criteria leave room for several potential gaps within the ranking process, the author believes them to be the best means for selecting (and ranking) the ten deadliest famines in world history.
What Is a Famine?
Broadly defined, a famine refers to an extreme scarcity of food (or food-based products) that results in prolonged shortages and, in turn, mass starvation (if not remedied). It is important to note, however, that more recent definitions of the term argue that famine is not just a lack of food products. In fact, various governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often debate the term “famine” and its overall definition. According to the IPC (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification), a famine can be declared after only three specific outcomes have been achieved. These include:
- At least 20 percent of an area’s households are facing extreme food shortages with only a limited ability to cope with their current situation.
- The acute malnutrition rate (of the affected area) must exceed 30 percent of the population.
- Overall death rates must exceed two deaths for every 10,000 people in the area (each day).
To date, famines have a number of specific causes, including war, drought, excessive rainfall (that kills crops), and unfavorable weather conditions in general. Likewise, many historical cases of famine were the direct result of genocidal measures implemented by governments to eliminate groups of individuals through withholding food or deliberate confiscation of foodstuffs. All of these basic causes will be considered in the following list of famines.
The 10 Deadliest Famines in History
10. Irish Potato Famine
9. Bengal Famine of 1943
8. Russian Famine of 1921
7. Great Bengal Famine of 1770
6. Doji Bara Famine (“Skull Famine”) of 1789
5. Chalisa Famine of 1783
4. Ukraine Famine of 1932
3. Northern China Famine of 1876
2. Chinese Famine of 1907
1. Great Chinese Famine
10. Irish Potato Famine
- Date of Event: 1845 to 1852
- Geographical Range: Ireland
- Number of Deaths: 1.5 to 2 Million People
The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 (also known as the “Great Famine” or “Great Hunger”) was a devastating period of starvation that lasted approximately 7 years. Originating from a blight that destroyed potato crops within the region (and other areas within Europe), the ensuing chaos that followed quickly became one of the worst human tragedies in history. As a region that relied primarily on a single-crop system of farming (potatoes), the results were devastating for Ireland as few food sources could be procured for immediate consumption following the blight. The end result was widespread hunger and starvation that resulted in a tremendous loss of life.
Although the Potato Famine originated from natural causes, many scholars have attributed the famine’s devastation (in regard to deaths) to laissez-faire policies of Britain’s Whig-dominated government at the time. Believing that market-forces would eventually correct food shortages over time, nearly all food shipments and relief efforts were halted to the country with devastating consequences. Left to die without any source of aid, approximately 2 million people are believed to have immigrated from Ireland by 1853, resulting in a 25-percent reduction in the Irish population. For these reasons, many modern scholars argue that the Potato Famine was a clear act of genocide by the British government.
How Many People Died in the Irish Potato Famine?
It remains unclear how many individuals perished as a result of the Irish Potato Famine. This is due, in part, to the massive number of immigrants that left Ireland during this time for the United States. Moreover, determining which individuals died from natural causes or diseases (rather than starvation) is also difficult for scholars due to the lack of consistent historical records. Nevertheless, overall deaths for the Irish Potato Famine are believed to be approximately 1.5 to 2 million. In addition, it is widely believed that approximately 100,000 individuals may have died from blight-related starvation in other parts of Europe at this time as well. Whatever the number may be, one thing is clear: the Irish Potato Famine was certainly one of the worst human disasters in modern history.
9. Bengal Famine of 1943
- Date of Event: 1943 to 1944
- Geographical Range: British India
- Number of Deaths: 3 to 5 Million People
The Bengal Famine of 1943 refers to a major famine that affected the Bengal Province of British-controlled India between the years 1943 and 1944. The cause of the famine is a hotly debated topic amongst scholars, as some attribute its causes to natural disasters, whereas others argue that the famine was largely “man-made” and genocidal. A combination of these two concepts appears to be more likely, however, as powerful cyclones, tsunamis, flooding, and rice crop diseases (along with wartime colonial policies from the British) proved catastrophic to the Indian people and their harvests for 1943 and 1944, respectively. With their crops destroyed (and no international aid to support them due to the Second World War), millions of Indians faced starvation and death in the year that followed.
How Many People Died in the Bengal Famine of 1943?
The Bengal Famine of 1943 was massive in its overall scale, affecting over 60.3 million people over the course of a year. Of these, it is currently estimated that approximately 2.1 to 3-million people perished as a result of starvation and famine-related issues (such as malaria, disease, malnutrition, and unsanitary conditions). Scholars are quick to point out, however, that these numbers are under-calculated when you consider the number of individuals that likely perished as a result of famine-related issues in the years and decades that followed. If we follow this logic, it is reasonable to conclude that the famine’s death toll could be expanded to include several million more individuals. As such, the Bengal Famine of 1943 was clearly one of the worst episodes of hunger the world has ever witnessed.
8. Russian Famine of 1921
- Date of Event: 1921 to 1922
- Geographical Range: Volga and Ural River Valleys
- Number of Deaths: 5 Million People
The Russian Famine of 1921 (sometimes referred to as the “Povolzhye famine”) was a catastrophic famine that affected the Russian Soviet Republic in 1921. Affecting the region between the Volga and Ural River valleys, the famine is believed to have resulted from the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War, respectively. With the government and local districts in disarray from years of warfare and social strife, rail systems were unable to effectively (and efficiently) distribute food aid to the area’s numerous peasants. Likewise, intermittent droughts throughout 1921 only made the situation worse, as crops were incapable of growing in many areas.
The famine was eventually elevated to the status of a “national catastrophe,” and is regularly cited as one of the worst disasters in human history.
How Many People Died in the Russian Famine of 1921?
Overall death tolls for the Russian Famine of 1921 are difficult to determine due to the absence of accurate records (and subsequent “cover ups” by the Soviet regime in latter years). Nevertheless, historical records indicate that approximately 5 million people (mostly peasants) perished as a result of starvation (or related issues). More conservative estimates place the number of dead in the vicinity of 1 to 2 million; however, other sources have quoted figures as high as 10-million.
Unfortunately for many of the survivors, famine would once again strike the Soviet Union only a few years later, with devastating consequences. In spite of this, the Russian Famine of 1921 continues to be recognized as one of the worst human disasters in modern memory; a feat that will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
7. Great Bengal Famine of 1770
- Date of Event: 1769 to 1773
- Geographical Range: Bengal, India
- Number of Deaths: 10 Million People
The Great Bengal Famine of 1770 was a catastrophic famine that occurred between 1769 and 1773 throughout British-controlled India. Stretching from Bihar to Bengal, the event is believed to have originated from a failed monsoon season in 1769. Without adequate rain to supply crops, drought ensued throughout the area resulting in the complete failure of two separate rice crops that were critical to the region’s food supply.
In spite of these natural origins, many scholars have dubbed the Great Bengal Famine as a “man-made” event created by the British East India Company (EIC). In an effort to regain money lost from prior wars, documents from the era show that the EIC deliberately implemented a series of exploitative tax polices (and laws) that devasted the rural population of India in the years leading up to the famine. This included a prohibition on the hoarding of rice. As a result, the local population of Bengal was wholly unprepared for the period of starvation that ensued in 1770 as food reserves were relatively non-existent for most of the population. To make matters worse, the EIC also decided to hike land taxes on the area (despite Bengal’s lack of available food and provisions). The end result was widespread death from starvation.
How Many People Died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1770?
As with all famines on this list, death figures for the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 are difficult to determine with accuracy. Nevertheless, scholars generally agree that approximately 10 million individuals likely perished as a result of the famine (a figure representing approximately one-third of Bengal’s population at this time). At the disaster’s height, it is also estimated that nearly 500 people were dying of starvation each day within the Murshidabad area alone. The end result was catastrophic for India, as disease, cannibalism, and social unrest spread rampantly. In the end, approximately 4-percent of Bengal’s entire population had died from the catastrophe (a disaster that could have been avoided if not for the policies of the EIC). For these reasons, it is not difficult to see why the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 was one of the worst famines in human history.
6. Doji Bara Famine
- Date of Event: 1789 to 1792
- Geographical Range: India
- Number of Deaths: 11+ Million People
The Doji Bara Famine of 1789 (sometimes referred to as the “Skull Famine”) was a catastrophic famine that occurred on the Indian subcontinent during the last decade of the Eighteenth Century. The famine is believed to have originated from a major El Nino event that resulted in prolonged droughts for the region, causing a complete failure of the periodic monsoons for 4 consecutive years. This lack of rain, combined with a lack of support by British officials and several outbreaks of smallpox and cholera in the area led to a devastating loss of life as crop after crop began to fail for millions. By the end of the disaster, virtually no province of India was left untouched, resulting in a massive loss of life both during and after the famine concluded. To this day, the famine continues to be known by locals as the “skull famine” due to the fact that bones of unburied victims littered India’s roads, fields, and streets for the duration of the event.
How Many People Died in the Skull Famine?
Due to a lack of historical records, the total number of victims claimed by the Doji Bara Famine are difficult to determine with accuracy. This is especially true in areas controlled by the East India Company (EIC), where records were either destroyed (to cover up the extent of the famine), or were never kept. In spite of this, most scholars agree that approximately 11 million people perished as a result of the Doji Bara Famine. These figures, however, do not include individuals that perished as a result of malnourishment and various diseases in the years and decades following the event. While impossible to determine, some scholars have argued that these latter victims may have reached several million in total.
In regard to the scope of the Doji Bara Famine, nearly all districts within British-controlled India felt the effects of starvation in one form or another. Some districts, such as the Northern Circars and Bijapur experienced mortality rates of over 50-percent of their populations. As such, the Doji Bara Famine was a terrible tragedy worthy of recognition on our current list.
5. Chalisa Famine
- Date of Event: 1783 to 1784
- Geographical Range: India
- Number of Deaths: 11 to 12 Million People
The Chalisa Famine refers to a devastating famine that occurred along the Indian subcontinent between 1783 and 1784. The famine is believed to have originated from a series of unusual El Nino weather patterns, which resulted in a halt to the traditional monsoon seasons (leading to severe drought throughout the region). North India, in particular, appears to have suffered the most, with nearly all of its villages and towns experiencing dramatic disruptions to their food supply and provisions. To date, the Chalisa Famine continues to be recognized as one of the worst natural disasters to have ever occurred in India.
How Many People Died in the Chalisa Famine?
As with many of the older famines appearing in this list, it is extremely difficult for scholars to pinpoint an exact number of deaths for the Chalisa Famine. Nevertheless, many conservative figures place the number of deaths in the vicinity of 11 to 12 million people. Scholars are quick to point out, however, that the actual number of deaths is likely far higher if we include those that died of malnutrition, disease, and complications during the years and decades that followed. As such, it is probably that deaths may have exceeded upwards of 15 million or more people, making the Chalisa Famine of 1783 a catastrophic event in world history.
4. Ukraine Famine of 1932
- Date of Event: 1932 to 1933
- Geographical Range: Soviet Ukraine
- Number of Deaths: 3 to 13 Million People
The Ukraine Famine of 1932 (also known as the “Holodomor” which means “to kill by starvation”) was a man-made famine devised by Soviet leaders to eliminate peasants throughout the Ukraine. The event, which lasted approximately a year (ending in 1933), is believed to have been carried out by Stalin and his cadres for the purpose of eliminating nationalist opposition to communist rule in the 1930s. Using collectivization policies and the demands of the “Five Year Plan” as a backdrop to their extensive plot, Soviet brigades poured into the Ukraine in 1932. Upon arriving, these brigades went house-to-house confiscating every bit of grain and supplies they could find. The end result was a catastrophic loss of life that is virtually unparalleled in the modern era.
Due to extensive efforts on behalf of the Soviet authorities to conceal their involvement in the famine, very little was known about the disaster for much of the 1900s, as suppression of census data and official testimonies from survivors were carefully withheld from public view. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, much of these documents have been released for the first time, providing western scholars with a first-hand glimpse into the horrors perpetuated by the Stalinist regime against the Ukraine.
How Many People Died in the Ukraine Famine of 1932?
The overall death toll from the Ukraine Famine of 1932 is difficult to measure. However, it is generally accepted by the scholarly community that approximately 3 to 12 million individuals perished from the famine through starvation and related issues (with 9 million being the average figure accepted by most historians). The wide gap in these numbers is due, in part, to the lack of archival evidence pertaining to the famine. Trying to hide the catastrophe unfolding in the Ukraine from public view, Soviet officials took great pains to conceal the scope of the famine for several decades, as this catastrophe would have been viewed as an international embarrassment to Soviet programs and goals (particularly from the west).
In addition to these deaths, an untold number of individuals suffered displacement from their homes as they attempted to flee the countryside and head towards cities with the hopes of receiving aid from the government (which in many cases never occurred). As a result, it is impossible to determine with certainty how many actual people died from starvation (and hunger-related illnesses that manifested themselves after the famine occurred). Nevertheless, the Ukraine Famine of 1932 was easily one of the worst famines to have occurred in human history.
3. Northern Chinese Famine of 1876
- Date of Event: 1876 to 1879
- Geographical Range: Northern China
- Number of Deaths: 9.5 to 13 Million People
The Northern China Famine of 1876 refers to a catastrophic series of crop failures that occurred between 1876 and 1879. Affecting the provinces of Shanxi, Zhili, Henan, Shandong, as well as northern Jiangsu, it is estimated that approximately 108 million people were impacted by the famine that ensued. The crop failures from each of these years was the direct result of drought, which was heavily influenced by a El Nino-Southern Oscillation. The end result was a virtual stoppage of the periodic monsoon seasons that farmers depended upon for their crops to thrive. Without viable amounts of water for their crops, famine quickly occurred with devastating effects on the Chinese people.
How Many People Died in the Chinese Famine of 1876?
During the Northern China Famine of 1876, it is estimated that approximately 13 million people died from starvation out of an estimated 108 million people in the area. In other words, Northern China suffered a nearly 12-percent drop in its overall population due to famine conditions. These figures would have likely been far higher if not for the international relief efforts organized by both Protestant and Catholic missionaries who organized food drives and donations to support the suffering Chinese people. Despite their best efforts though, the famine still managed to claim a tremendous number of individuals before the rains returned in 1879 (allowing crops to grow once again). To date, the Northern China Famine of 1876 is regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in the modern era, with few famines matching its scope and magnitude.
2. Chinese Famine of 1907
- Date of Event: 1906 to 1907
- Geographical Range: Northern China
- Number of Deaths: 25 Million People
The Chinese Famine of 1907 refers to a crisis that affected Northern China during the early 1900s. Triggered by heavy rains during the 1906 season that resulted in extensive flooding of the Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, mass starvation ensued as both the summer and autumn harvests were completely destroyed by the swelling of the Huai River. Although government officials attempted to mitigate the disaster through the suspension of agricultural taxes on the region, the efforts proved to be inconsequential as millions of individuals continued to succumb to hunger. With no food or provisions (and little relief from government aid), both provinces experienced a rapid decline in their population numbers in less than a year.
How Many People Died in the Chinese Famine of 1907?
Due to issues with records from this time period, it is incredibly difficult to determine an overall death rate for the Chinese Famine of 1907. Nevertheless, most modern scholars agree that 25-million deaths (minimum) can be attributed to the famine that occurred, resulting in an almost 10-percent drop in the region’s population numbers. With both Anhui and Jiangsu maintaining a combined population of approximately 42.1 million people, this figure indicates that over half of the populations within these two provinces was completely wiped out as a result of starvation. As such, the Chinese Famine of 1907 was a famine of epic proportions and one that is virtually unparalleled in the realm of natural disasters.
1. Great Chinese Famine
- Date of Event: 1959 to 1961
- Geographical Range: China
- Number of Deaths: 55+ Million People
The Great Chinese Famine was a catastrophic event that occurred between 1959 and 1961 as a result of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” policies. Considered the largest (and deadliest) famine in human history, the Great Chinese Famine has often been characterized as a man-made event (implying genocidal intent).
In his attempt to implement a planned economy for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao instituted a number of agricultural changes that resulted in poor crop production and the concentration of millions into people’s communes. State violence only exacerbated the poor working conditions that followed, leading to a record number of deaths through malnutrition, disease, and complete starvation. Following the death of millions, the Communist regime was forced to terminate the Great Leap Forward campaign to avert further losses.
How Many People Died in the Great Chinese Famine?
As with most famines, the overall number of deaths is difficult to ascertain (with certainty) as records from this period are extremely difficult to procure by scholars. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted by the scholarly community that approximately 20 to 55 million individuals perished as a result of starvation and related causes between 1959 and 1961. As with the Ukraine Famine of 1932, however, much of the details pertaining to the official death toll have been obscured by the Communist Party in China, who have attempted time and again to downplay the catastrophic proportions of this grim episode in human history. In spite of this, historians are quick to point out that 30 to 40 million individuals appears to be an acceptable range for the tragedy, with some scholars arguing that the figure may have reached as high as 70 million. This latter figure is staggering (but potentially accurate), as a large number of individuals likely died as a result of hunger-based illnesses that manifested themselves in the post-famine years. Whatever the case may be though, one thing is clear: the Great Chinese Famine of 1959 resulted in a tremendous loss of life. It is certainly (and regrettably) the worst famine to have occurred in recorded history.
Can Famine Be Prevented?
In conclusion, famines continue to be a tremendous threat to human civilization worldwide. Despite the growing number of non-governmental organizations that provide foodstuffs and goods to famine-affected areas, tyrannical regimes, bad weather, and changes to the climate continue to batter large portions of the globe (resulting in unparalleled episodes of starvation and hunger for millions of people). Only through a deeper understanding of prior famines and their causes can a solution to these adverse events be implemented. If their history is forgotten, however, these solutions may never be fully realized.
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- Pixabay Commons
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Larry Slawson