Starvation is one of the most painful ways to die but one of the hardest to avoid. Famines cause disease and chaos that exterminate entire communities in agonizing deaths. In the past 300 years alone, famine death tolls are way over 0.5 billion, making famines the most dangerous disaster in human history. Natural disasters cause the worst famines, mostly floods and drought, striking largely agrarian communities. Some of these famines, however, had nothing to with nature, just greedy governments that imposed terrible policies on the people. Modern technology has increased food production and reduced severity of famines, but some isolated cases still occur. These ten famines will always remind humanity of the need to prioritize food security.
The Great Famine of China: 45 Million Deaths (1959 – 1961)
This is famously known as the “Leap Forward Famine.” In a village of 45 people in Henan province, 44 people died while the last person that survived went insane during the disaster, but this was just a millionth of the deaths to follow. The details of this famine sounded more like a fable than reality as the world struggled to understand how so many people could die under the government’s watch. Beijing seemed to have lost touch with the local affairs. During the period of the famine, China was exporting lots of grain around the world claiming to be the new champion of communism. The government forced people to stop working on their farms and start working in steel manufacturing camps to foster development. The government confiscated all lands for communal farming forcing the peasants to give up their food reserves to the government.
Local governments were under pressure to deliver lots of grain to national silos leading to false harvest figures which could only be met by confiscating the last scraps of food the people had. The worst-hit place was Xinyang in Henan province. Reports of cannibalism were rampant as the government quashed all local efforts to ask for external help. There was no seed to plant, and even if they planted, the government would take it anyway, so the people stopped working on their farms. A long drought and storms in central China also had a hand in the disaster, but the government was the main perpetrator of the havoc. The government, however, blamed the disaster on natural causes downplaying the figures to 15 million but the figures continued to grow with every new report. The worst affected were children, pregnant women and the aged. Reporters confirmed that people were beaten to death for asking for help and the government ordered door to door searches to confiscate food. Talking about this disaster has been banned in China; the government just called the period “the three bad years.”
The Chinese Famine: 25 Million Deaths (1907)
It was the worst disaster in the world since the black death, and it changed China forever. It began in 1906 during the planting season when floods covered more than 40,000 acres of land. They were so expansive and included the provinces including Honan, Kiang-su, and Anhui. And destroying nearly 30% of the national harvest estimates. Throughout its reign from 1644, the Qing dynasty had prioritized food production and sustained the growing population through the years, but they were unprepared for this.
The severity of the famine was also aided by the increasing rebellion to the dynasty as many people were angry with the imperial government. The hunger and anger led to violent rebellions forcing the dynasty to employ the military to quench the food riots and street wars. China had a population of 500 million at the time, but the events led to up to 5000 deaths a day leading to the most rapid population decline the country had ever seen. The events surrounding the famine escalated into the final overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 although relief efforts managed to restore sufficient food reserves until the harvest in 1908.
The Northern China Famine: 13 Million Deaths (1875 – 1879)
China was no stranger to famines, but this was the first significant famine that changed the future of the country. This famine also played a significant role in the revolt against the Qing dynasty a few years later. The accounts of the havoc caused by this famine in Shanxi China were documented by Timothy Richard who went to investigate in 1876. The remote province of 15 million people at the time had lost more than 5 million people. Tree barks and roots were the only food available, and people had even turned to cannibalism because of the suffering.
Most people were only aware of the famine in the neighboring Shandong. Scarce rains from 1875 caused the drought until 1879. The Qing dynasty was busy trying to block Russian and British colonial threats leading to an inadequate response to the crisis. The effects spread through all the five provinces of Northern China which had the poor infrastructure at the time making it almost impossible to deliver aid to the remote areas.
The Chalisa Famine: 11 Million Deaths (1782 – 1784)
The monsoons are unfair sometimes as they bring floods that turn deadly but as this famine proved, “better the devil you know.” This famine had nothing to do with the people of India; in fact, it wasn’t even the monsoons fault! The whole change in northern hemisphere weather patterns that year were caused by the Laki volcanic eruption in Iceland which continued emitting sulphuric gasses in the atmosphere for eight months. The long dark winters with no rain caused a deadly drought on the Indian subcontinent.
The worst affected areas were Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Kashmir, and Rajputana. This deadly wave was just a second famine Southern India, then controlled by the British East India company, had already been struck by a major famine in 1782. The combined death toll was over 11 million deaths. The weak government response and internal conflicts also played a part in prolonging the famine.
The Great Soviet Famine: 10 Million Deaths (1932 – 1933)
This is the darkest stain of the Soviet communist party in Ukraine; it is known as Holodomor. Other parts of Russia were also adversely affected by millions of deaths, but Ukraine paid the highest price. Stalin’s government was more interested in promoting collectivism than saving lives. Stalin created quotas on all the regions to deliver food to the USSR and while his government exported grain, 5.5 million people starved in Ukraine. Regional commanders forced peasants to work on communal farms and took away any foodstuffs from the households during searches, including farm animals.
Kazakhstan’s nomadic communities were the worst hit as they lost everything they had. The government never documented the disaster caused by Stalin’s government. It was all covered up until its effects became visible in 1934. Russian settlers were repopulating the depopulated Ukraine. Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow at the time later uncovered the conspiracy stating that more than 10 million people may have died in the famine.
The Bengal Famine: 10 Million Deaths (1769 – 1773)
Many people think of it as the worst genocide caused by the British. The British East India company took control of modern-day West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha in India to Bangladesh. They then imposed a 50% tax on food crops and put vast tracts of land for opium and dye production, reducing the food reserves for the locals. When a slight drought hit in 1768, most peasants used up all the food they had, an elongated drought the following year caused a disaster.
Copies of reports delivered to the company in 1770 are detailed death tolls of 2 million people and that there were not enough people to bury the dead in some regions. The company refused to act on the reports. Cases of smallpox and other famine-related diseases also became rampant, and despite a good harvest in 1770, people continued to starve until one-third of the population was gone. People migrated leaving many parts of the area to become a jungle until the late 20th century.
The Persian Famine: 10 Million Deaths (1917 – 1919)
Iran had a population of 18 to 20 million people entering into WW1, but nearly half of that population never saw the dawn of the new world. It all happened during the Qajar Dynasty in the then neutral territory of Iran. The research on the exact extent of the famine was never discovered until 2003 when Mohammad Gholi Majd released his book “The Persian Famine and Genocide.” The professor mainly calls it the worst genocide of the 20th century attributed to British rule. The British blocked all wheat imports into Iran during WWI and forced the peasants to give up their last food reserves from the 1916 harvest which was also poor. The killings by government forces and spread of disease including typhus made the conditions worse. American observers and British servicemen detailed parts of the Holocaust, but the government never acted on them.
The Western China Famine: 10 Million Deaths (1928 – 1932
In the first half of the 20th century, China was called the land of famines, and the 1907 catastrophe was not the end of their problems. After the fall of The Qing dynasty, Imperial China took over control of mainland China, but their disaster response was not improved. The famine was caused by a drought that extended through Henan, Shaanxi, and Gansu. The official records of the deaths were not well detailed but researchers estimated 3 to 10 million deaths throughout the four years. Most blame fell on the government for not establishing an efficient relief distribution channel. The worst-hit areas were also remote and transporting aid to the interior was difficult.
The Great Russian Famine: 5 – 10 Million Deaths (1921)
This is the most widely researched famine in Russian history popularly known as the ‘Povolzhye famine.’ The figures quoted by most western media at the time was 10 million, but the Russian government stuck with 5 million. Russia was prone to droughts every five to seven years, but the 1921 drought was more severe cutting the national harvest by more than one third. The rains that followed flooded the Volga river basin destroying the plants for the for the next harvest as well. The civil wars at the time and internal strife of the communism policies also hindered relief efforts leaving the rural areas with no food. Famine related diseases such as typhus and typhoid were also widespread as many people ate dead animals and even human bodies. Wild tales (some fabricated) of cannibalism and a human flesh black market forced the government to accept relief even from the American Relief Association.
The civil wars at the time and internal strife of the communism policies also hindered relief efforts leaving the rural areas with no food. Famine related diseases such as typhus and typhoid were also widespread as many people ate dead animals and even human bodies. Wild tales (some fabricated) of cannibalism and a human flesh black market forced the government to accept relief even from the American Relief Association.
The Great Famine of India: 5.5 – 7.1 Million Deaths (1876 – 1878)
between 1860 and 1880, the British government let more than 15 million Indians starve to death. The government at the time saw relief efforts as an adverse reaction to the forces of nature. This policy which had caused the severe Irish famine had its worst effect on India in 1876. As usual, the trouble started with the failure of monsoons on the Deccan plateau which is all of Central and southern India.
While the government only gave food to people that were capable of hard labor, the rest of the population of over 100 million people were forced to survive on roots. The monsoons failed again in 1877 this time affecting the northern provinces as well. The resulting food shortages were devastating to the whole country. By the return of the monsoons in June 1878, the famine had spread so severely affecting even British soldiers and police. The death toll was adjusted to 7.1 million in 20th-century research.