A man, woman and two children sit in front of a makeshift tent in a barren landscape in Yemen. The family may be facing famine.

Conflict has devastated Yemen and left millions in need of food – © Mohammed Yaseen Ahmed Ibrahim/ICRC

The word ‘famine’ conjures up images of emaciated people clinging on to life. It is a deeply sensitive term and should never be used lightly.

The United Nations has appealed this week for funds to avert famine in Yemen, a country left decimated by conflict.

But Yemen is not the only country in the world facing famine: severe food shortages in South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia are also putting lives in danger.

What is famine?

Famine occurs when malnutrition becomes widespread. The UN defines this as when:

  • 20 per cent of the population has fewer than 2,100 kilocalories of food a day
  • 30 per cent of children are acutely malnourished
  • there are two deaths per 10,000 people, or four deaths per 10,000 children every day.

The origins of a famine can go back months or years. For example, a drought, floods or conflict may contribute to the conditions which make famine possible.

How does a famine develop?

When people can access food easily, they are said to have ‘food security’.

The Red Cross defines this as: “When all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, affordable and appropriate nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.

When people live in circumstances that make this difficult, they are said to have ‘food insecurity’. This can be one of the first steps in the process that leads to famine.

Right now in Yemen, 14 million people are facing food insecurity. That’s equivalent to nearly twice the population of London.

Food insecurity can be temporary or chronic. Temporary food insecurity is often caused by a sudden event such as a flood or a short-term increase in food prices.

Chronic food insecurity sets in when people don’t have enough food in the long term.

What is malnutrition?
A man wearing a Red Cross vest hands a food parcel and bottle of cooking oil to a man in Yemen in an effort to help people avoid famine

Emergency food distribution in Yemen – © Sami Ahmed/ICRC

Malnutrition often follows food insecurity.

People are malnourished if their diet does not provide enough calories and other nutrients. Under these circumstances, they have ‘undernutrition’, and their growth and energy levels will be reduced.

People may go on to develop ‘moderate acute malnutrition’. This is essentially when the individual does not weigh enough for their height. In children, this is also known as ‘wasting’.

A lack of food may also cause a person to be ‘stunted’, which means being too short for their age. Stunting usually affects children and reflects chronic undernutrition during critical growth periods. It can have long-term implications for health and wellbeing.

The next stage is ‘severe acute malnutrition’, when a child has a very low weight for their height. Or, they may show nutritional oedema (swelling). In these cases, depressions can be seen on their skin after light pressure, such as lightly touching a child’s foot. This may also be called pitting oedema.

Moderate acute and severe acute malnutrition can be precursors of famine.

In Yemen now, 3.3 million people are suffering from moderate acute malnutrition. Some 462,000 children are facing severe acute malnutrition.

Sadly, 63,000 children died last year of preventable causes, such as diarrhoea and other infections, which are often linked to malnutrition.

Diarrhoea itself also contributes to malnutrition, and so this creates an often inescapable cycle.

How does the Red Cross help people affected by malnutrition and famine?

Famine is now threatening four countries where the Red Cross works:

Our projects provide food, clean water, shelter and medical care. We focus particularly on children and their mothers, who are often the worst affected.

We also have long-term programmes in these countries to help reduce the likelihood of future food shortages. The Red Cross and our partners will continue this work as long as we are needed.