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.

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  • Vietnamese Famine (1945)
    Photo: Võ An Ninh / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Vietnamese Famine (1945)

    Lives Lost: 2 million

    Taking place from October 1945 to May 1945, a combination of the war, poor government management, floods, and droughts caused the Vietnamese famine. One major contributing factor was the affect of French and Japanese occupation. Vietnamese farmers were encouraged to shift production from food to war materials. The subsequent famine had devastating results, with bodies piling up in the streets of Hanoi.

  • Bengal Famine (1943)
    Photo: Kalyani Bhattacharyee/Sj. Manoj Sarbadhikar / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bengal Famine (1943)

    Lives Lost: 3 million

    During the 1943 Bengal Famine, India was still under British control. With WWII at its peak, the British government was exporting massive amounts of food from India to feed its own population. From January to July, India exported more than 70,000 tons of rice to Britain. Winston Churchill refused to export food to India in return, claiming a shortage of ships prevented this. The result was a devastating famine, widely considered one of the greatest human rights violations India suffered as a result of British colonialism. 

    Survivors later reported the effects of the famine in horrific detail. Parents ended up mercy slaying starving children by throwing them into wells and rivers. Some people took their own lives by jumping in front of traffic. There were piles of corpses throughout Bengal and packs of dogs frequently fed on the bodies.

    Heavy exportation rates eventually slowed down and Britain provided some relief in November via shipments of barley and rice. This resulted in the famine ending at the end of the year.

  • Chinese Drought/Famine (1942-43)
    Video: YouTube

    Chinese Drought/Famine (1942-43)

    Lives Lost: 3 million 

    Not widely acknowledged in China today, a 1942 drought and subsequent famine resulted in millions of lives lost between 1942 and 1943 in the province of Henan. During that time, Japanese troops occupied most of the area. When a drought swept through the region, it also affected crop production and led to massive famine and widespread passings due to starvation.

    At the time, China lacked the resources to effectively address the issue. The results were devastating. American journalists traveled to China to report on the famine and discovered people starving in the street, dogs feeding on corpses, and evidence of cannibalism.

  • Soviet Famine (1932-33)
    Photo: Alexander Wienerberger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Soviet Famine (1932-33)

    Lives Lost: 4 million

    Affecting primarily the Ukraine, the Soviet famine of 1932 is remembered by some as the Holodomor - a term that translates to "hungry extermination." Historians place the blame for the famine primarily on then leader Joseph Stalin. Attempting to radically change the peasant society, Stalin ordered all of the Soviet countryside to adhere to a collectivist government structure. Adopting a highly Machiavellian strategy, he decided Ukrainian farmers needed to be "liquidated." This essentially translated to genocide to ensure socialism throughout the country. To eliminate any peasants selling food for profit, Soviet troops roamed throughout the Ukrainian countryside and seized crops from peasant populations. The intent was to deliberately start a famine and starve out the peasants.

    The results were devastating. Famine swept throughout the Ukraine and millions perished. There were reports of corpses rotting in the streets, peasants begging Communist-run shops for bread and food, and cannibalism. To this day, Russia remains mute on the manmade famine. Russian officials even occasionally outright deny the famine occurred and it remains little known in the Western world.