The top 5 worst famines in history

The world is living through unprecedented times at the moment. The Ukraine-Russia war has had catastrophic consequences worldwide, including an immediate refugee crisis, unparalleled sanctions on a major economy, and a shakeup of global alliances. Before that, the coronavirus has already brought people anxiety, insecurity, and disruption. But above all, these horrific events may lead us to another pandemic or war, the “Hunger Pandemic” or the “Food War.” They have already triggered a terrible global food crisis, and as a result, many poor countries like Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan, and Yemen are experiencing famine-like conditions. But what exactly is famine? And what are the top 5 worst famines in history?

What is famine?

Famine, 1876-78, Bangalore
[1] Famine, 1876-78, Bangalore

A famine is a widespread scarcity of food. Usually, it is caused by several factors, including war, inflation, natural disasters, crop failure, population imbalance, or government policies. And this causes regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Throughout history, Every inhabited continent in the world has experienced a period of famine. Now let’s see 5 of the worst famines in the history of humankind.

The worst famines in history

5. The Great Bengal Famine of 1770

The Great Bengal Famine of 1770
[2] Map of India in 1765 from Imperial Gazetteer of India (The Great Bengal Famine of 1770)

At no 5 of the worst famines in history, we have the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. A few years before the famine, the East India Company was granted the right to collect revenue in Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha, where the Nawab of Bengal had administrative responsibilities only. In this way, the Nawab became powerless, and on the other hand, the Company started plundering and oppressing in the name of collecting revenue. As a result of this exploitation, extreme misery descended on the mass people.

In addition to the exploitative suffering, heavy rains and floods occurred in Bengal that year. Also, the yield has been very low due to the drought in the previous two years. So, agriculture in Bengal suffered severe crop losses, leading to a major economic downturn and food shortages across the country. The Company also forced farmers to grow indigo and opium, which were much more profitable than inexpensive rice. And this led to a terrible famine. As a result, about one crore people died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1770.

4. Soviet Famine of 1932-1933

Soviet Famine of 1932-1933
[3] Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933 (Soviet Famine of 1932-1933)

The next terrible famine in history is the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933. It is known as “Holodomor,” which is a Ukrainian word. It means “to kill by starvation” and emphasizes the famine’s man-made and intentional aspects. The question of whether the famine was caused by man or nature is still being debated in academia. Some scholars believe that the famine was planned by Joseph Stalin to eliminate a Ukrainian independence movement. Others argue that the famine was a consequence of Soviet industrialization.

Whether it was man-made or not, the famine killed millions of people, especially in the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Volga Region, Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Though the death tolls are debatable, Encyclopædia Britannica estimates that 6 to 8 million people died from hunger, whereas 4 to 5 million were Ukrainians.

3. Chalisa Famine

Another famine in the Indian subcontinent, the worst famine in the history of this subcontinent so far. It’s called “Chalisa Famine.” It took place in Northern India from 1783 to 1784. The word “Chalisa” refers to the Vikram Samvat calendar year 1840, and “Chalisa” means forty (40). The famine affected many parts of North India, especially the Delhi territories, present-day Uttar Pradesh, Eastern Punjab, Rajputana, and Kashmir. The Chalisa famine was preceded by a famine in the previous year, 1782–1783, in South India.

The main reason for this horrific famine is a terrible drought. As a result of this drought, food production got damaged and caused a food shortage, which led to the famine. It is estimated that more than 11 million lives have been lost during the two famines, and populations in particular in the territory of Delhi have significantly reduced.

2. Chinese Famine of 1907

This famine victim in China (Chinese Famine of 1907)
[4] This famine victim in China (Chinese Famine of 1907)

Chinese Famine of 1907 was experienced by northern China. It is the 2nd worst famines in recorded history. The famine was caused by excessive rain during the harvesting season of 1906. This rain washed away most of the plants in that area. So, food production got hampered, resulting in significant food scarcity. As a result of this famine, it is estimated that about 25 million people died in northern Jiangsu and parts of central China. It is 10% of the population in that region. Thus, this huge death toll makes it the second-worst famine in recorded history.

1. The Great Chinese Famine

Four Pests campaign (1958 poster, 'Exterminate the four pests!')
[5] Four Pests campaign (1958 poster, ‘Exterminate the four pests!’)

The worst famine in recorded history was the Great Chinese Famine. This deadliest famine in history took place in China between 1959 and 1961. It is regarded to be one of the greatest man-made catastrophes in human history, with an estimated death toll of 15 million to 55 million people.

The major causes of the famine were the policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) and people’s communes. This includes a lack of effective food distribution, poor agricultural techniques, the Four Pests campaign (notable sparrow), millions of farmers switching to iron and steel production, etc. All these factors have led to a substantial decrease and widespread food scarcity in China. And as a result, millions of people died from 1959 to 1961.


Thumbnail Image: 
1: Willoughby Wallace Hooper , CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
2: By J. G. Bartholomew and Sons. Edinburgh - Imperial Gazetteer of India, volume 26, Atlas, Oxford University Press, 1908, GFDL,
3: By Alexander Wienerberger - Diocesan Archive of Vienna (Diözesanarchiv Wien)/BA Innitzer, Public Domain,
4: By Unknown author - page 70, Public Domain,
5: By China Government -, Public Domain,