Drought and famine: their causes and relationship

By Daniil Filipenco

Drought and famine: their causes and relationship

Our planet’s weather patterns are ever-changing. Extreme temperatures and unpredictable heavy rainfalls are expected to affect millions of people, causing migration, food insecurity, and poverty. Extreme weather causes droughts which today are already a common occurrence in the majority of regions. However, specific climate and weather systems in some regions can transform droughts into major disasters which can even lead to famine.

What is the relationship between the two, and how often do they occur?

What is drought?

Droughts should not be considered as unusual as normally these are lengthy, dry periods when the moisture level is considerably below the average or the anticipated levels in a given timeframe. Droughts are normally associated with a lack of atmospheric precipitation although this may not be the case in certain situations.

In some geographical regions, the phenomenon is registered more frequently compared to others, and scientists agree that in most cases droughts can and should be predicted.

Take for example the drought that occurred in Europe in 2022. According to experts, this was the worst in at least 500 years, causing wildfires, lowering food yields, and having an impact on electricity output. In August, the drought in much of Europe remained critical with early heatwaves aggravating the shortage of rain recorded during the winter of 2021 and the spring of 2022. Weather and climate experts believe that by using precipitation records, a prediction of drier-than-usual periods will be crucial to enable mitigation measures.

See also: Europe’s worst drought affects agriculture, economy and livelihoods

Otherwise, droughts may cause low agricultural yields and, as a result, food insecurity and even famine.

So, what causes a drought?

According to NASA, which operates global precipitation measurement activities, droughts are caused by:

  • Low rainfall over a prolonged period of time
  • Ocean temperature changes
  • Jet stream changes associated with warming in the Arctic (fast-moving, narrow air flows in the atmosphere)
  • Local landscape changes

Arguably, some of the causes of droughts may be attributed to human activities which lead to climate change although droughts occurred even before the industrial era began. The truth is that once measurement and observation capacities increased then the numbers also changed.

The consequences of droughts

Depending on where it occurs, a drought may have different effects which may include:

  • Agricultural effects, such as dying cattle and wilting crops
  • Increased human migration from drought-stricken areas
  • Rising undernutrition rates as a result of a lack of food
  • Interrupted education due to disruptions at schools

At first glance, the connection between drought and hunger would seem obvious. This is especially true in areas where non-irrigated agriculture predominates. However, it is worth mentioning that the factors that can cause famine are far more complex.

What is famine?

Famine is a dramatic state when households encounter an extreme lack of food or water. Starvation, death, and extremely critical malnutrition levels become evident. Currently, this phenomenon is observed across several nations and regions with some lacking access to sufficient food supplies. In 2021, nearly 110 million people were facing conditions similar to famine across the world, according to UN data.

Throughout history, famines have occasionally affected the majority, if not all, of societies. They are mentioned in the histories of ancient civilizations in India, Egypt, Western Asia, China, Greece, and Rome, among other places.

What causes famine?

There is a mistaken belief among some people that famine is the sole results of food shortages. In reality, famine has several causes that significantly increase illness and death:

  • Natural disasters such as prolonged droughts, flooding, storms, and plant diseases
  • Government’s incapacity or reluctance to cope with the impacts of famine and climate change
  • Warfare that destroys crops, either on purpose or during combat. In addition, wars can lead to the restriction of food supplies or its prohibition due to cuts in supply lines and routes
  • Politically reasoned enforced famine.

The consequences of famine

  • Undernutrition, hunger, disease, and an increased death rate are the main consequences of famine.
  • Famine affects children, the elderly and pregnant women by making the body more susceptible to dangerous infections
  • Pregnant women are more likely to have a miscarriage
  • Famine among children lowers their cognitive development
  • Famine among older people is linked to an increased risk of mortality, decreased mobility and psychological stress.

See also: What causes world hunger? The six drivers of food insecurity

The relationship between drought and famine

Famine and drought lead to a lack of food and water as well as the spread of disease. Both could potentially result in the social and economic collapse of a region or nation.

Although famine can occasionally emerge as a consequence of drought, it is often seen as a man-made crisis, making it more avoidable, and it occurs when there is a lack of food and safe drinking water. Droughts, on the other hand, are the sole product of nature’s whims.

Final word

Famine is a global issue caused by several factors, one of which is drought which, throughout history, has caused numerous issues worldwide. Even today, countries on the European continent have suffered from what some experts call ‘the worst drought in 500 years’. Nowadays, predicting droughts is possible but preparing populations to be ready for this is another issue that not every country is able to resolve.

As for famine, this may seem to be a thing of the past and indeed it should be. Tragically, however, while thousands of people still perish from famine, there is no justifiable reason for humans to continue to experience this crisis in today’s modern world.