A hand holding a sheath of rotten maizeA hand holding a sheath of rotten maizeA hand holding a sheath of rotten maize

Which countries are at risk of famine, and why?

Which countries are at risk of famine, and why?
Story22 February 2021Hannah Myerson

What is famine?

The World Food Programme recently warned that 2021 could be a catastrophic year of humanitarian crises, with famine “literally on the horizon”. In this blog we explore the circumstances that can lead to famine, which countries are at risk and what we can do to prevent it.

The definition of famine is an ‘extreme scarcity of food’, but for famine to be declared certain conditions must be met. These are:

  • One in five households in an area are facing an extreme lack of food
  • 30 per cent of children are suffering from acute malnutrition
  • Two people out of every 10,000 are dying every day due to starvation or malnutrition and disease.


Famines have occurred throughout history, all over the world. Although there is technically enough food being produced to feed every person on Earth, there are reasons people in famine-affected areas can’t get enough, such as increases in the cost of food or crop production being prevented. These dire circumstances can be created by many factors - from disease outbreaks to recession, conflict, displacement, political unrest and climate change - many of which are at play right now.

Covid-19 and hunger

Since 2014, the number of people affected by hunger across the globe has slowly been on the rise. Increasing conflict, economic crises and climate disasters have made accessing affordable, nutritious food a challenging task in some of the world’s poorest places. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, projections indicated that the world was not on track to achieve Zero Hunger, one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has further disrupted food systems. For those who rely on farming to eat and earn a living, the economic decline has led to sharp increases in the cost of tools and seeds, while border closures and travel restrictions have reduced food supplies for countries dependent on imports and humanitarian aid.

These circumstances mean that many families are struggling to put food on the table, let alone meals with nutritious value. The World Food Programme projected that Covid-19 could push 265 million people into acute food insecurity by the end of last year, almost double 2019’s total. Among this number are hundreds of thousands of children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women - all of whom are significantly at risk of malnutrition.

For children who are malnourished right now, therapeutic food is the best way to get  them the calories and nutrients they need to recover from malnutrition  and build their strength. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Concern Worldwide
For children who are malnourished right now, therapeutic food is the best way to get them the calories and nutrients they need to recover from malnutrition and build their strength. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Concern Worldwide

Which countries are at risk of famine?

For the first time in recent history, multiple countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen and Burkina Faso – are simultaneously facing the prospect of famine. Concern works in two of these at-risk countries, here is what is happening.

South Sudan

Conflict has plagued South Sudan since it gained independence in 2011, affecting the economy, trade, opportunities for people to earn a living and the delivery of humanitarian aid to those who need it most. All of these things have impacted people’s access to essential food, healthcare and water.

As one of the world’s most climate-change affected countries, droughts, torrential rain and flooding frequently disrupt food production and sanitation in many parts of South Sudan. Covid-19 has seen even more people lose their livelihoods and their ability to feed their families, and a surge in the number of children with acute malnutrition. Almost 7.3 million people – 60 per cent of the population – are expected to be facing severe food insecurity in 2021.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Across the DRC, a country where the majority of people are employed in agriculture, armed conflict has led to widespread displacement. This means that those left with no choice but to flee their homes have also lost their means of earning a living and, consequently, their means of providing food for their families. Recent projections suggest that 72 percent of the population is living in poverty. Weather extremes have also affected crop production, while the worsening economic situation has led to high food prices.

What is Concern doing?

With the number of people facing extreme hunger growing every day, now is the time for the international community to recognise the severity of the situation and do what they can to avert the possibility of famine.

At Concern, we’re continuing our longstanding work to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition across the DRC and South Sudan, by improving vulnerable communities’ resilience and preventing food insecurity.

Our livelihood programmes are training people in agricultural skills that can withstand extreme weather, and providing tools and seeds to increase crop production. Not only is this enabling people to earn an income to purchase food, but the variety of seeds being distributed are helping to build a balanced, more nutritious diet for growing children. For families in conflict-affected areas who are unable to work, we’re delivering food packages including flour, beans and oil or using cash transfers where market places are open for trade.

A man in a Concern vest carries supplies at a nutrition clinic in South Sudan
Concern staff work tirelessly at a nutrition clinic in the Payam Arianth Area of Aweil, South Sudan. We have seven mobile clinics and over 50 nutrition clinics in this area. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Concern Worldwide

A lack of good hygiene and safe water is a key cause of malnutrition, which is why we’re installing public water stations and teaching communities about sanitation. Our ground-breaking CMAM (Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition) initiative is screening the most at-risk groups, including older people and children under five, for malnutrition and treating them with life-saving therapeutic food. We’re continuing to train hundreds of community health workers to help us carry out this vital work. All of these programmes have continued throughout the pandemic, with measures put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Here in the UK, we are campaigning to make sure that hunger and malnutrition are prioritised at the G7 this summer and Nutrition for Growth, a global summit which brings together country governments, donors, businesses and NGOs together to accelerate progress on malnutrition. In 2015, the G7 made a commitment to lift 500 million people in developing countries out of hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

With Covid-19 exacerbating food shortages in so many parts of the world, now is the time to tackle these challenges and commit to reversing the impacts of the pandemic.

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