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Asian Development Bank

Chapter 14.2 Drought, food security and famine

Understanding food security

Photo: Asian Development Bank

The 1996 World Food Summit defined food security as: ‘when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’.+‘Rome Declaration on World Food Security’, World Food Summit, 13–17 November 1996, This depends on people being able to buy food or obtain it in other ways, such as in exchange for their labour or other services, or by borrowing from their extended family or community. This, in turn, depends on them having sufficient income, savings and other material assets, skills or social connections to obtain food. Food security is not just a question of there being enough food available – rather, it reflects the fact that people do not have equal access to food because of differences in the resources they possess and other economic, social and political factors, including the price of food in local and global markets.+This theory of people’s differing ‘entitlements’ to food was first advanced by the economist Amartya Sen in the mid-1970s. Control of the distribution of food within individual households is another important dimension: children depend on what adults give them; male children and adults often get more food than females; and providing adequate food for elderly family members may not be a priority when times are hard. There can be pockets of food insecurity almost anywhere – within countries, communities and families. Food shortages can be transitory or long-term.

All of this means that there are many different ways of improving people’s ability to obtain food (for ways of visualising the variety of approaches, see Figures 14.1: Pathways to food security; and 14.2: Drought Cycle Management). These include improving farming and food production techniques, drought mitigation measures (such as soil and water conservation) and better management of natural resources such as forests and watersheds. They also include actions to support livelihoods in general, such as projects to create jobs and increase incomes, cash transfers, savings and credit programmes, crop insurance, social protection, ensuring security of land rights or access to common land, clean water and better sanitation (poor health is an important contributor to malnutrition), education for women (an important factor in reducing malnutrition at household level), supporting local markets for food and other products (through better access roads and footpaths, or better methods of packaging and preserving perishable products for sale) and encouraging wider community participation in economic and social development initiatives to improve the situation of marginalised groups. Such initiatives can be undertaken locally, to tackle pockets of food insecurity, or contribute to more widespread programmes. There is ample opportunity for local-level organisations to become involved.

Figure 14.1 Pathways to food security

ODI 2015
Concern Worldwide, Confronting Crisis: Transforming Lives through Improved Resilience: Concern Worldwide’s Learning from the Sahel and the Horn of Africa (London: Concern Worldwide 2013),, p. 7.


Figure 14.2 Drought Cycle Management

ODI 2015

© Good Practice Review

© Drought Cycle Management
Diagram from, citing IIRR, ACACIA and CordAid, Drought Cycle Management: A Toolkit for the Drylands of the Greater Horn, 2004, p. 41.

14.2.1 Drought

Although the causes of food insecurity include political, social and economic factors, natural hazards, especially drought, remain important. There are different kinds of drought:

  • Meteorological drought is when rainfall drops below a certain level.
  • Hydrological drought involves a reduction in water resources such as rivers, lakes and underground water.
  • Agricultural drought is the impact of the previous two kinds of drought on crop yields.
  • Socio-economic drought is when the supply of water cannot meet the demands of farmers, herders and communities.

Whilst it is obvious that places that receive little rainfall are drought-prone, drought can also occur where rain is normally sufficient. A few weeks with little or no rain at a critical time of year for crop growth can be devastating, even if the rest of the year is not dry. The important point is whether the amount of rainfall is sufficient for agriculture, livestock and other human needs at the time in question. Some of the measures needed to mitigate water shortages and their effects are outlined below. Here, a more general problem should be noted: the difficulty of assessing the relative importance of drought on food insecurity compared to broader socio-economic factors. It can be hard to disentangle these causes because they interact with each other. For example, a fall in crop yields may be due partly to lack of water, but may also be the result of lack of fertilisers or weeding, pests and crop diseases or labour shortages at critical periods.