Famine (Latin fames,"hunger"), severe shortage of food, generally affecting a widespread area and large numbers of people. Natural causes include droughts, floods, earthquakes, insect plagues, and plant disease. Human causes include wars, civil disturbances, sieges, and deliberate crop destruction. Widespread, chronic hunger and malnutrition may result from severe poverty, inefficient food distribution, or population increases disproportionate to the food-producing or procuring capacity of people in a region.
The immediate consequences of famine are weight loss in adults and retarded growth in children. Malnutrition, especially protein-energy malnutrition, then increases throughout the affected population and mortality rates rise, usually beginning with the old and the young. These deaths are due not only to starvation, but also to diminished ability to fight infection. In the past, epidemics of typhus and plague caused famines that resulted in high mortality rates. In recent times, diarrhoea, measles, and tuberculosis have taken a high toll in famine areas.
One of the most dramatic, large-scale sociological consequences of famine is population migration. For example, about 1.6 million people emigrated from Ireland—chiefly to the United States—to escape Ireland's potato famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1847. Modern migrations have often been from rural areas to cities. The population of Nouakshott, the capital city of Mauritania, quadrupled in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely as a result of famine in the Sahel (sub-Saharan) region of Africa.
Acute shortages of foodstuffs have existed in isolated areas periodically since ancient times. Historical records, however, cover only a few thousand years, and estimates of the extent of famines have been approximate. This is true even of famines that occurred during the 20th century.
Nevertheless, the catastrophic nature of major famines is unquestioned. Most researchers list about 400 such famines in recorded history. Populations in Asia have been decimated repeatedly by starvation as a result of drought. An estimated 10 million people died in a drought-induced famine in India from 1769 to 1770, and a similar number died in the 1877-1878 famine in northern China. Warfare has been another major cause of famines in these regions.
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