The Worst Droughts And Famines In History

Wiping out large portions of populations in the areas affected, the worst droughts and famines in history date back several centuries and chronicle some of the worst natural disasters on record. Droughts and famines still occur to this day, with starvation and malnutrition an unfortunate reality in many parts of the world.

Famine and droughts differ from other devastating natural disasters like the worst earthquakes and the most destructive tornadoes in the extent of suffering and loss of life. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis are short-lived, while famine and drought can last years at a time. Most natural disasters cannot be prevented, however, some historical famines could have been. Many were due in part to poor policies created by local governments. For example, major famines in countries like India and the Ukraine were largely caused by mismanagement and the cruel policies of leaders. 

To put things in perspective, the death toll from the worst famine in history greatly exceeds that of the worst earthquakes of the 21st century combined. The longest famines and droughts have devastated communities, often affecting the poorest regions the worst. 

If nothing else, this history of famine and drought has brought awareness to the ongoing issues of malnutrition and starvation. While both continue to this day, there are a growing number of  organizations and charities working to end this unnecessary loss of human life.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY)

  • Spanish Drought (2014)
    Photo: Colin C Wheeler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 ES

    Spanish Drought (2014)

    Lives Lost: None

    While there were no lives lost, the 2014 Spanish drought had frightening implications for the future. The worst drought in over 150 years, Spain saw its rainfall reach just 25% of average levels in some major cities. Water reservoirs depleted dramatically - while reservoirs are usually at 70-90%capacity, one major reservoir fell down to only 54%. Due to a changing climate, the future of the region is uncertain, but many scientists are predicting worse droughts to come. This could threaten the future of Spain's water supplies.

  • Somalia/East Africa Famine And Drought (2011)
    Photo: Oxfam East Africa / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Somalia/East Africa Famine And Drought (2011)

    Lives Lost: 260,000 

    Primarily affecting Somalia, a severe drought led to a famine throughout East Africa in 2011. It's estimated 260,000 perished, and not just because of famine conditions. Aid from western countries was slow to arrive, in part due to the fact that the militant Islamist group al-Shabab - alligned with al-Qaeda - was in control of Somalia at the time. Al-Shabab denied the famine and banned all western aid, allowing the famine to spread to other areas. While aid eventually did arrive - and the famine officially ended in 2012 - the slow response allowed the famine to spread throughout eastern Africa.

  • Syria (2006-10)
    Video: YouTube

    Syria (2006-10)

    Lives Lost: Unknown 

    The effects of the 2006 drought in Syria continue, making the number of lives lost difficult to tabulate. Scientists have determined, however, that climate change was a major factor. While a variety of other factors - such as natural fluctuations in temperature and unsustainable farming practices - contributed to the drought, recent studies indicate a strong link between worldwide changing temperatures and Syrian water shortages. Roughly 60% of Syria's land experienced a severe drought, lasting until 2011. 

    The Syrian drought was a major contributing factor to the political turmoil in Syria. Many rural Syrians - left without food and other resources - traveled to cities in search of food. This occurred just after millions of refugees from Iraq, fleeing the country due to the United States invasion, caused a huge population shock in 2006. The stress contributed to Bashar al-Assad's 2011 uprising and the subsequent civil war that has devastated the country.

  • North Korean Famine (1990s)
    Video: YouTube

    North Korean Famine (1990s)

    Lives Lost: Unknown 

    The famine that swept through North Korea throughout the 1990s remains enigmatic today. North Korea has never publicly acknowledged the disaster. Due to the isolated nature of the country, worldwide knowledge of what occurred is limited. The precise causes, dates, and number of lives lost are unknown, but reports of starving people roaming North Korean streets surfaced in the 1990s. 

    It is likely that the famine's roots go back to 1948, when the country was founded. North Korea's farmland and climate are not ideal for crop production, thus, the country relied upon imported food from the Soviet Union for survival. However, the fall of the Soviet Union drastically reduced North Korea's access to cheap and reliable resources. The country, founded in the spirit of complete self reliance, largely refused any outside help. This, and flooding caused by warm weather patterns, drastically reduced food supplies. 

    Eventually, North Korea requested food aid from the international community, somewhat alleviating the famine. North Korea continues to rely on international aid to feed their citizens to this day.

  • Illinois Drought (1988-89)
    Video: YouTube

    Illinois Drought (1988-89)

    Lives Lost: None

    The legacy of Illinois's 1988 drought is ominous as temperatures continue to rise worldwide. In the summer of 1988, rainfall fell to 8-10 inches below normal. This caused many corn crops in the region to fail, affecting the area economically. In 2012, a hot summer with low rainfall reminded many older farmers of the 1988 drought.

    If droughts like 1988 become the norm, the future of crop production in Illinois is uncertain. Low crop production could have a major impact economically on farmers who rely on high yields for a living. 

  • Ethiopian Famine (1984-85)
    Video: YouTube

    Ethiopian Famine (1984-85)

    Lives Lost: 1 million

    Widely televised throughout the West, the Ethiopian famine put 5 million people at risk of starvation when a 1981 drought wiped out crops. The 1984 harvest did not yield nearly enough crops to feed the population, and a famine quickly took hold. Despite pictures of starving children being widely circulated throughout the world, affluent Western nations were slow to intervene due to the country's controversial government structure. 

    Eventually, relief and aid agencies worldwide began putting pressure on various Western nations - the UK especially - to help the ailing country. International aid began to flow in and independent charities also raised money to help Ethiopia. By 1985, conditions began to improve and the famine's worst effects were over.