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Asian Development Bank

Chapter 14.3 Drought, food security and famine

Coping with food insecurity and famine

Photo: Asian Development Bank

Seasonal food insecurity is normal in many poor households, which suffer a hungry period shortly before the harvest, as food gathered from the previous harvest runs out. This recurrent problem is known as ‘chronic’ food insecurity, as opposed to one-off shortages which are classified as ‘transitory’ food insecurity. When food insecurity is acute and prolonged it can lead to starvation and finally to famine (when there is a significant increase in sickness and death rates resulting from starvation and associated factors). The descent into acute food shortage and thence into famine can take weeks, months or even years.

Except where conflict is a major contributing factor, famine should not be seen as inevitable because of the range of measures available to improve food security and strengthen livelihoods in the long term at all levels. Take, for example, the mitigation strategies used by communities to protect themselves against drought and resulting food insecurity. These can be divided into two main types: agricultural and non-agricultural.

  • Agricultural mitigation strategies are measures to maintain crop and livestock production. They include sowing again after a crop has been ruined by drought, sowing alternative crops or moving livestock to other locations.
  • Non-agricultural mitigation strategies include seeking off-farm employment in the locality or elsewhere, eating seeds or roots that were saved to be sown in the next growing season, reducing the amount of food consumed, eating wild food such as berries and roots, postponing social functions such as weddings, using up savings, selling assets (such as livestock, household goods and personal possessions), buying on credit, borrowing money or calling in favours from communities and kin.

Families only sell their livelihood assets if they are forced to, when other methods such as growing alternative crops or finding alternative employment are insufficient. Sale of assets is a good indicator of how severe the consequences of drought are. Poor families, those with small landholdings and the landless, are the first to resort to such methods. Only when all else has failed will whole families and communities migrate in search of food. The severity of a food crisis can therefore be judged by looking at food and livelihood coping strategies as well as food supplies. Food insecurity is likely to be acute if:

  • People experience a large reduction in their major source of food and are unable to make up the difference through new strategies.
  • The prevalence of malnutrition is abnormally high for the time of year, and this cannot be accounted for by health or care factors.
  • A large proportion of the group is using marginal or unsustainable coping strategies.
  • People are using coping strategies that are damaging their livelihoods in the longer term or incur some other unacceptable cost, such as acting illegally or immorally – stealing, for instance.+H. Young et al., Food Security Assessments in Emergencies: A Livelihoods Approach (London: ODI, 2001), http://www.odihpn.org/hpn-resources/network-papers.

The most effective way to protect communities against food insecurity and famine resulting from drought is to strengthen these mitigation strategies in advance, especially those that enable them to preserve their productive assets, such as animals, seeds and tools. Despite this, many external interventions are in response to drought. Moreover, they often come at a late stage, when communities are in crisis and may already be destitute, having been forced to dispose of productive assets. Typical interventions in such circumstances are to provide food, seeds, fertiliser, animals and agricultural equipment to replace what has been used or sold, and to lend money. Where a crisis has become acute, with widespread starvation and migration, aid agencies’ interventions focus on emergency response, especially feeding and health care. Food-for-work and cash-for-work schemes are also common responses.

The boundary between disaster preparedness and response is blurred in the case of food crises because they can develop over such a long time. Some would argue that an emergency begins when hungry people are forced to dispose of their livelihood assets; others put it at the point where destitute, starving people leave their homes to beg for food, or even where large numbers begin to die of starvation. In this chapter, the emphasis is on longer-term mitigation measures to maintain food production and incomes.