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The Top 10 Worst Famines in History Of The World

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.

To date, famines have a number of specific causes, including war, drought, excessive rainfall (that kills crops), as well as 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 the withholding of food, or deliberate confiscation of foodstuffs. All of these basic causes will be considered in the following list of famines.

The Irish Potato 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.

The Bengal Famine of 1943.

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.

The Russian Famine of 1921.

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.

The Great Bengal Famine of 1770.

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.


The Doji Bara Famine.

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.

The Chalisa Famine.

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.

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.


The Ukraine Famine of 1932.

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.

The Northern Chinese Famine of 1876.

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.

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.


The Chinese Famine of 1907.

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.

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.


The Great Chinese Famine.

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.

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.

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.

Content created and supplied by: JobW (via Opera News )

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