OWID presents work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the original data source. This entry can be cited as:

Max Roser (2016) – ‘Famines’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/famines/ [Online Resource]


# Empirical View

# Famines since 1850 – Global View

This visualisation shows the number of famine victims globally over the last 14 decades.
The data is taken from the table of famines that you find at the very end of this entry. The visualisation is available as an interactive chart here.

# The number of famine victims by decade, 1860s-2000s1


# Long run view for single countries

Saito (2010) has created a chronology of famines in Japan since the 6th century. Before the 14th century data is judged to be incomplete (although the records for the 8th and 9th are surprisingly complete – there were more than 35 famines in each of the two centuries. Overall Saito’s chronology comprises information on 281 famines. None of these 281 famines happened in the 20th century but the following graph shows that the end of hunger in Japan arrived gradually. Before 1550 there were more than 10 famines per 50 years – since then famines became less and less common in Japan.

The number of famine points by half-century, 1300-1900 – Saito (2010)2

The number of famine points by half-century, (1300-1900) – Saito (2010)0

Similar chronologies of famines in single countries are being put together at Wikipedia:

Here is Wikipedia’s list of famines in Ethiopia.

Here is Wikipedia’s list of famines in India during the British rule and here is the entry on famines in India.

And here is Wikipedia’s list of famines in China.

# Data Quality & Definition

# Definition of a famine

According to Cormac Ó Gráda3 famine refers to ‘a shortage of food or purchasing power that leads directly to excess mortality from starvation or hunger-induced diseases’. It is not always straightforward to distinguish it from malnutrition that is described in a different entry in this website. The distinguishing feature between malnutrition and a famine is the latter’s crisis character.
Generally a famine is more severe than malnutrition – Ó Gráda is more specific in this respect and according to him a famine is characterised by 3 features:

  1. A ‘daily death rate above 1 per 10.000 population’,
  2. The ‘proportion of “wasted” children [that is, children weighing two standard deviations or more below the average] above 20 percent’4
  3. ‘Prevalence of kwashiorkor’ (extreme form of malnutrition mainly affecting young children).5

According to O Grada a ‘severe famine’ means

  1. A daily death rate of above 5 / 10.000,
  2. A proportion of wasted children above 40 percent, and
  3. Again, the prevalence of kwashiorkor.

# Comparability across time

Many famines that occurred in the distant past are presumably not recorded in historical accounts and there is a risk that the empirical data underreports long past famines and the number of their victims.
In the study of famines of the past historical myopia is a severe problem. Loveday, an early researcher of Indian famines, noted in 1914, “The frequency of the mention of famine in the later history […] increases in exact proportion with the precision and accuracy in detail of her historians.”6

# Data Sources

Wikipedia presents a list of famines that covers more than 2 millenia.

# Devereux (2000) Famine in the 20th century
  • Data: Famines with more than 1,000 people killed.
  • Geographical coverage: Global
  • Time span: 1900-2000
  • Available at: The research paper Devereux (2000) – Famine in the 20th century is published as a IDS Working Paper here.7
  •  I have included the famines listed by Devereux in the list here in this data entry.

# Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT)
  • Data: Information on the occurrence of famines – and other (natural) disasters.
  • Geographical coverage: Global
  • Time span: 1900-present
  • Available at: Online at www.emdat.be
  •  This resource is published by  the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).  EM-DAT states that the database “contains essential core data on the occurrence and effects of over 18,000 mass disasters in the world from 1900 to present. The database is compiled from various sources, including UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, insurance companies, research institutes and press agencies.”
  • Neumayer and Plümper (2007) give an overview of natural disasters covered by EM-DAT.8
  • The EM-DAT data for the time post 1970 is also available through Gapminder here.


# Our World in Data – List of famines worldwide since 1850

The first visualisation in this entry is based on this list of famines assembled by us.

The list is is based on several sources:

Devereux (2000) – Famine in the 20th century. IDS Working Paper 105. Brighton: Institute for Development Studies. The paper can be downloaded from IDS here. Whenever there was data available from both Devereux (2000) and additional sources the data from Devereux is shown here. The extensive bibliography on which the list in Devereux (2000) is based can be found in the cited (freely available) research paper.
Additional data for the time since 1900 was taken from EM-DAT. These data on victims of ‘droughts’ were obtained by using this search request.

Devereux (2000) and EM-DAT only cover famines after 1900 – data on famines before 1900 were taken from the following sources:
Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983) – The Cambridge economic history of India, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1983

Ó Gráda (2007) – Making Famine History. Journal of Economic Literature. Vol. 45, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III (1907), The Indian Empire, Economic (Chapter X: Famine, pp. 475–502, Published under the authority of His Majesty’s Secretary of State for India in Council, Oxford at the Clarendon Press. Pp. xxx, 1 map, 552. Through Wikipedia here.

Shoko Okazaki (1986) – The Great Persian Famine of 1870-71. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 49, No. 1, In Honour of Ann K. S. Lambton (1986), pp. 183-192

Crowell and Oozevaseuk (2006) – The St. Lawrence Island Famine and Epidemic, 1878–80: A Yupik Narrative in Cultural and Historical Context. Online here.

White (2011) – The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. W. W. Norton & Company.

‘Wikipedia List’ refers to the List of Famines here.

YearCountryExcess MortalitySource
1846–52Ireland1,000,000Ó Gráda (2007)
1853-5IndiaN.A.Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1860-1India2,000,000Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1862IndiaN.A.Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1866-7India961,043Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1868Finland100,000Ó Gráda (2007)
1868-70India1,500,000Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. III (1907),
1870–1871Persia (now Iran)1,500,000Okazaki (1986)
1873-4IndiasmallKumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1876–79India7,000,000Ó Gráda (2007)
1877-8India1,250,000Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1877–79China9,500,000 to 13,000,000Ó Gráda (2007)
1878-1880USA (St. Lawreence Island Alaska)small (around a thousandCrowell and Oozevaseuk (2006)
1885-1899Sudan5.5 mio died but not descenible between famine, war or slave raidsWhite (2011)
1888-9Indiamin 150,000Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1891–1892Russia375,000-500,000Wikipedia List
1896-7India5,150,000Kumar and Raychaudhuri [Eds.] (1983)
1899-1900India6,100,000-19,000,000White (2011)
1900Cape Verde11000EM-DAT
1903-06Nigeria (Hausaland)5,000Devereux (2000)
1906-07Tanzania (south)37,500Devereux (2000)
1913-14West Africa (Sahel)125,000Devereux (2000)
1917-19Tanzania (central)30,000Devereux (2000)
1920Cape Verde24,000EM-DAT
1920-21China (Gansu, Shaanxi)500,000Devereux (2000)
1921-22Soviet Union9,000,000Devereux (2000)
1927China (northwest)3,000,000-6,000,000Devereux (2000)
1929China (Hunan)2,000,000Devereux (2000)
1932-34Soviet Union (Ukraine)7,000,000-8,000,000Devereux (2000)
1940Cape Verde20,000EM-DAT
1943China (Henan)5,000,000Devereux (2000)
1943India (Bengal)2,100,000-3,000,000Devereux (2000)
1943-44Rwanda300,000Devereux (2000)
1944Netherlands10,000Devereux (2000)
1946Cape Verde30,000EM-DAT
1946-47Soviet Union2,000,000Devereux (2000)
1957-58Ethiopia (Tigray)100,000-397,000Devereux (2000)
1958-62China30,000,000-33,000,000Devereux (2000)
1966Ethiopia (Wallo)45,000-60,000Devereux (2000)
1968-70Nigeria (Biafra)1,000,000Devereux (2000)
1969-74West Africa (Sahel)101,000Devereux (2000)
1972-73India (Maharashtra)130,000Devereux (2000)
1972-75Ethiopia (Wallo & Tigray)200,000-500,000Devereux (2000)
1974-75Somalia20,000Devereux (2000)
1974Bangladesh1,500,000Devereux (2000)
1979Cambodia1,500,000-2,000,000Devereux (2000)
1980-81Uganda (I30,000Devereux (2000)
1982-85Mozambique100,000Devereux (2000)
1983-85Ethiopia590,000-1,000,000Devereux (2000)
1984-85Sudan (Darfur, Kordofan)250,000Devereux (2000)
1988Sudan (south)250,000Devereux (2000)
1988China P Rep1,400EM-DAT
1991China P Rep2,000EM-DAT
1991-93Somalia300,000-500,000Devereux (2000)
1995-99North Korea2,800,000-3,500,000Devereux (2000)
1997Papua New Guinea60EM-DAT
1998Sudan (Baht el Ghazal)70,000Devereux (2000)
2000Moldova Rep2EM-DAT
2006China P Rep134EM-DAT


  1. If a range of famine victims is shown in the table then I have taken the average of this range. For famines that happened at the end of a decade and the beginning of the next decade I have counted half of the famine victims in each decade.

    For many of the famines the number of victims is not known, so I have not included the victims of these famines in this chart. The numbers here – especially for the earlier decades – should therefore considered as lower bounds of the true number of famine victims.

  2. This is taken from Osamu Saito (2010) – Climate and Famine in Historic Japan: A Very Long-Term Perspective. In Satomi Kurosu, Tommy Bengtsson and Cameron Campbell [Eds.] (2010) – Demographic Responses to Economic and Environmental Crises. Reitaku University.

    The particular chapter by Saito is online here.
    The entire book can be found here.

    The authors’s sources for the famine chronology table are:
    Ogashima, M. 1894. Nihon saii-shi. Nihon Kōgyōkai, Tokyo.
    Nishimura, M. and I.Yoshikawa eds. 1936. Nihon kyōkō-shi kō. Maruzen, Tokyo.
    and Fujiki, H. ed. 2007. Nihon Chūsei Kishō-saigaishi Nenpyō Kō. Kōshi Shoin, Tokyo.

  3. Cormac Ó Gráda (2009) – Famine: A Short History. Princeton University Press. The book’s website is here.

  4. Wasting is sometimes referred to as “acute malnutrition”. The ‘London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’ explains it here: ‘wasting results from an acute shortage of food, is reversible with refeeding, and has a relatively high mortality rate’. This is different from stunting which is a chronic symptom of persistent malnutrition and less associated with food crises.

  5. Loveday (1914) page 10 as cited in Ó Gráda – (2007).

    Loveday (1914) – Loveday, Alexander. 1914. The History and Economics of Indian Famines. Repr., New Delhi: Usha Publications, 1985.

    Ó Gráda – (2007) ‘Famine: A Short History.’ Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  6. The reference is Devereux (2000) – Famine in the 20th century. IDS Working Paper 105. Brighton: Institute for Development Studies

  7. Neumayer and Plümper (2007) – The gendered nature of natural disasters. The impact of catastrophic events on the gender gap in life expectancy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97(3), 551–566.