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Famine is a prolonged food shortage that causes widespread hunger and death. Throughout history, famine has struck at least one area of the world every few years. Most of the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America have barely enough food for their people. Roughly a half billion people on the earth are seriously malnourished, either from having too little food or from eating the wrong food. When food production or imports drop, famine may strike and thousands or millions of people may die.

Many famines have more than one cause. For example, the great Bengal famine of 1943 in eastern India was caused by both historical and natural events. World War II created a general food shortage and led to the cutoff of rice imports from Burma (now Myanmar), which was occupied by the Japanese. Then a cyclone destroyed much farmland. Famine struck, and more than 11/2 million people died.

Nearly all famines result from crop failures. The chief causes of crop failure include (1) drought (prolonged lack of rain), (2) too much rainfall and flooding, and (3) plant diseases and pests. Many other factors may also help create a famine.

Drought ranks as the chief cause of famine. Certain regions of Africa, China, and India have always been those hardest hit by famine. All have large areas near deserts, where the rainfall is light and variable. In a dry year, crops in those areas fail and famine may strike. In the 1870′s, for example, dry weather in the Deccan plateau of southern India caused a famine that took about 5 million lives. During the same period, a famine in China killed more than 9 million people.

In the late 1960′s and early 1970′s, lack of rain produced widespread famine in a region of Africa called the Sahel. The Sahel lies just south of the Sahara. Famine again struck this part of Africa and parts of eastern and southern Africa during the mid1980′s. The famine was especially devastating in Ethiopia, where a civil war hampered relief efforts. Since the late 1960′s, millions of Africans have
died of malnutrition or hunger-related causes. But many have been saved by international assistance.

Too much rainfall may also bring famine. Rivers swollen by heavy rains overflow their banks and destroy farmland. Other crops rot in the field because of the excess water. In the 1300′s, several years of heavy rains created widespread famine in western Europe. The Huang He River in northern China is called China’s Sorrow because it often floods, ruining crops and bringing famine. In 1929 and 1930, flooding along this river caused a famine that killed about 2 million people.

Plant diseases and pests sometimes produce famine. During the 1840′s, a plant disease destroyed most of Ireland’s potato crop. Between 1841 and 1851, Ireland’s population dropped by about 21/2 million through starvation, disease, and emigration. Occasionally, swarms of locusts cause widespread destruction of crops and vegetation in the Sahel and other areas of Africa.

Other causes of famine include both natural and human ones. Such natural disasters as cyclones, earthquakes, early frosts, and huge, destructive waves called tsunamis may affect a large area, destroying enough crops to create a famine. War may result in a famine if many farmers leave their fields and join the armed forces. Sometimes, an army deliberately creates a famine to starve an enemy into surrender. The army destroys stored food and growing crops and sets up a blockade to cut off the enemy’s food supply. Blockades prevented food shipments from reaching the Biafra region in the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970). A famine resulted, and over a million Biafrans probably starved.

Poor transportation may also contribute to a famine because of the difficulty of shipping food where it is most needed. Many famines result largely from primitive transportation. A famine in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India killed about 800,000 people in 1837 and 1838. Lack of transportation prevented the shipment of grain from other areas of India.

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