The Deadliest Famines Ever

The deadliest famines in the world are all associated with large scale suffering, death, and great economic losses.

A famine occurs when there is a food crisis in a particular area, causing mass starvation. Famines have been recorded since medieval times and are associated with drought, war, or politics. Famines are particularly common during periods of armed conflicts due to limited access to food resources and crippled economic activities. Several famines in history are classified as deadly as they caused mass suffering, many deaths, and profound economic losses.

10. Rajputana famine of 1869

The Rajputana famine was felt on an area of 296,000 square miles mainly in the princely states of Rajputana, India as well as the British territory of Ajmer. A population totaling to 44,500,000 felt its reach. In 1868, the monsoon arrived later than usual and was brief and light. Some parts of Rajputana experienced water and fodder shortages as a result. Many people who emigrated in search of food and pasture died while others succumbed to an outbreak of cholera. The rainfall of 1869 was also delayed and a swarm of locusts destroyed the young crops, leading to more death. Heavy rains in September and October 1869 brought with them a malaria epidemic. The harvest of 1870 succeeded in ending the famine.

9. Russian famine of 1601–1603

The Russian famine of 1601-1603 left an estimated two million Russians dead in its wake. The famine occurred in the context of record cold winters as well as crop disruption which was linked to a volcanic eruption in 1600 in Peru. The eruption of the Huaynaputina volcano caused the atmosphere to be saturated with millions metric tons of different elements, notably sulfur dioxide. The sulfuric acid formed triggered a volcanic winter felt in various parts of the world. The famine occurred during the Time of Troubles, which was characterized by political instability in Russia which was subsequently invaded by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Among the impacts of the famine in Russia were social disruption and the downfall of Boris Godunov.

8. Great Persian Famine of 1870–71

A famine in Persia in 1870-1871 claimed about 1.5-2 million lives. The famine was triggered by drought, where rains failed leading to poor crop harvests and low water levels. Wheat and barley, which were Persia’s stable crops, became scarce throughout the region. The situation, in turn, pushed the prices of the food up making it prohibitively expensive. Grain dealers hoarded grain to fetch better prices and people resorted to eating dogs, grass, cats, and even other people. The famine ended with rains in 1871.

7. Famine In Java under Japanese occupation

On March 1942, the Japanese invaded and occupied the Dutch East Indies, which is modern day Indonesia, ending Dutch colonial rule in the region. The Japanese embarked on a mission to educate young Indonesians and thus created a fertile ground for Indonesian nationalism. Japanese rule in Indonesia was associated with forced labor, war crimes, torture, detention, execution, and sex slavery. An estimated four million Indonesians succumbed to starvation under the Japanese according to a UN report. Between 1944 and 1945, approximately 2.4 million people lost their lives due to famine in Java.

6. Russian famine of 1921

A severe famine in Bolshevik Russia from 1921 to 1922 claimed approximately 5 million lives. Before the famine, the country had been devastated by the First World War as well as the Civil Wars of 1918-1920. The starvation was mainly felt in the Volga and Ural Rivers areas and even caused some to resort to cannibalism. The US and Europe funded relief efforts which fed an estimated 10 million people.

5. Great Bengal famine of 1770

This famine claimed an estimated 10 million in Bengal, India from 1769-1773. It began after a failed monsoon in 1769 triggered drought and poor rice harvests. Both policies of the Mughal Empire and the British East India Company were blamed for the widespread famine. The catastrophe affected the current states of West Bengal and Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha in India and parts of Bangladesh. No relief was provided and by the end of the famine, Bengal’s population had decreased by a third.

4. Soviet famine of 1932–1933

Different estimations of the death toll during the Soviet Famine (1932-1930) have been given, ranging from three to eight million. The famine was mostly felt in the main grain-producing territories of the Soviet Union, and it caused adverse food shortage across the USSR. These regions include Kazakhstan, Ukraine, West Siberia, Northern Caucasus, and the South Urals. Holodomor is used to describe the subset of the catastrophe felt in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as well as the Kuban. The policies of the Soviet Union were among the causes put forward by historians to explain the famine.

3. Chalisa famine

The Chalisa Famine (1783-84) claimed over 11 million lives in South Asia together with a previous famine (1782-83) in South India. The word Chalisa is derived from the Vikram Samvat calendar year 1840. The famine caused mass starvation in most parts of Northern India, particularly in the Delhi territories. It was attributed to unusual El Niño events that had commenced in 1780. The two famines are thought to have depopulated many parts of India including over 30% of the communities around Delhi and 17% of the settlements in the present-day Tamil Nadu, then known as the Sirkahzi region.

2. The Great Chinese Famine

The Great Chinese Famine in China was described as the nation’s most devastating catastrophe by the Historian Frank Dikötter. It occurred from 1959-1961, a period characterized by mass starvation. Government statistics placed the number of deaths at 15 million. However, unofficial estimates have suggested the death toll of between 20 to 43 million. Causes of the famine included radical reforms in the agricultural sector by the government, economic mismanagement, unfavorable weather conditions, and social pressure. The agricultural reforms were championed by Mao Zedong, a Marxist who was at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party. The reforms were part of the Great Leap Forward campaign, which sought to modernize the country’s economy to the standards of developed nations.

1. Persian famine of 1917-1918

This famine was blamed for the death of up to one-quarter of the total population inhabiting northern Iran. The government of Iran has placed the death toll at 8-10 million which is similar to the one recorded in the American archives. The Iranian government put the famine’s blame on the British, a matter which is disputed. Mohammad Gholi Majd, a Princeton University Professor, wrote about the catastrophe in his book The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia. Majd described the famine using British and Persian sources in addition to U.S. State Department records. The West did not access a lot of information on the famine as news about the Great War was controlled by the British.

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