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One hundred years of famine – a pause for reflection

Dublin '99

This piece was written by Fiona Watson, Institute of Child Health - NutritionWorks with contributions from the editors

As the millennium draws to a close, memories of the appalling man-made famine in southern Sudan last year are hard to erase. Even as this issue of Field Exchange goes to press, thousands of Angolans teeter on the edge of starvation; pawns in a long and brutal civil war over which they have little control. Famines have occurred with monotonous frequency throughout the 20th century despite enormous technological, economic and social advances - the Ukraine famine in the 1930s, the Bengal and Dutch famines of the 1940s, the great China famine of the 1950s, Biafra in the late 1960s, famines in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan in the 1970s-90s. There are many others, though perhaps lesser known. What most of these famines have in common is a shared cause; they were all created by man. Some of the man-made famines of this century are described below. The accounts are stark, harrowing and shameful. Yet their causes and impact bear striking similarities to the famines of today.

We have included these accounts in the last issue of Field Exchange for the millennium not to create pessimism as we move into another century, but to help us pause and reflect on how far we have come but how little has really changed. We can only hope that as our children look back over the famines of the 21st century that they will see less of the hand of man than has been evident in famines during these past hundred years.

The allied blockade of Germany: March 1915 to 1918

The allied blockade of Germany began on 11 March 1915 at the outbreak of the First World War. Neutral ships bound for Germany were apprehended at sea, escorted into British or French ports and detained, effectively giving the Allies long-range control of German commerce. By September 1916, the British fleet was single handedly intercepting an average of 135 merchant ships every week.

As a result of the blockade, conditions within Germany deteriorated. Unemployment stood at between 20 and 40 per cent, and although the Government provided 10.5 Deutsche Marks per week to a family of four in which no one was employed, the benefit of the payment was eroded by soaring inflation. The supply of food declined and rationing was instituted. The diet in Germany was initially reduced to bread and potatoes. Failure of the potato crop in 1916 led, however, to turnips replacing potatoes as the principal staple, and the particularly severe winter of 1916-17 was dubbed the 'turnipwinter'. The daily bread ration, which had been established at 225 grams per person per day in 1915, fell to 160 grams in 1917 with dough made from 55 per cent rye flour, 35 per cent wheat flour and 10 per cent substitutes. As conditions got worse, the rye flour was replaced by turnips. Only the very young, invalids, expectant mothers and the elderly were permitted milk.

Food prices increased as did the queues for rations. As one observer noted: "the daily bread was now a luxury". The collective weight of the German population plummeted sharply. The incidence of actual starvation was reported to be particularly high in jails, asylums, and other institutions where inmates only had access to an unsupplemented food ration. Cases of tuberculosis (TB), rickets, influenza, dysentery, scurvy, keratomalacia and hunger oedema became rife. TB was reported to be the major cause of death, but was initially limited largely to the elderly. As the disease spread, however, TB began to affect adults and young children while deterioration of hygienic standards contributed to the spread of disease.

The human toll was enormous. The number of deaths in Germany increased from 88,235 in 1915 to 293,760 in 1918. This increase was despite a drop in the birth rate from 30 per 1000 to 15 per 1000 between 1914 and 1919. Mortality increases were particularly high among children and the elderly. The death rate of children between the ages of 1 and 5 years rose by 50 per cent and among children from 5 to 15 years by 55 per cent.

The Soviet Famine: 1932-1934

In 1928, Stalin launched his first five-year plan, which was an ambitious attempt to boost industrialisation in the Soviet Union. The plan was to double steel output and triple both pig iron and tractor production within five years. The investment for industrialisation was to come from the agricultural sector through collective farms. The aim was to create modern 'socialist agrotowns' which would produce massively increased yields. The collectivisation campaign, which began in 1929, was violent, brutal and sudden. Overnight, small peasant holdings were merged into collectives; giant farms covering as much as 247,000 acres.

Wages were abolished and a system of work points established, which were paid as a share of the collective's output.

The peasants violently resisted collectivisation through armed rebellions, and destroying crops and livestock. Stalin's response was draconian. All collective land, agricultural produce and implements were declared state property and anyone guilty of destroying or damaging them was to be shown no mercy. Peasants were forbidden to leave the countryside without permission while rich peasants (kulaks) were expelled and killed or sent to labour camps. Agricultural production fell by 40 per cent. Nevertheless, from 1931 to 1933, the forcible seizure of grain was re-introduced and the Soviet Union doubled grain exports to raise hard currency to buy equipment needed for industrialisation.

Famine ensued. On average, the peasants were left with a third less grain than they had between 1926 and 1930. The food shortages were most acute in the Soviet Union's richest grain-growing areas, including the Ukraine. The Ukraine was particularly hard hit because Stalin initiated a campaign to crush Ukrainian nationalism and the rebellious Cossacks, who truthfully reported the existence of famine. In 1931, Stalin allowed relief grain to be delivered to all regions except the Ukraine.

The terrible spring of 1932 was superseded by the even more terrible spring of 1933. Vasily Grossman, a Soviet writer recorded:

"When the snow melted true starvation began. People had swollen faces and legs and stomachs. They could not contain their urine...And now they ate anything at all. They caught mice, rats, sparrows, ants, earthworms. They ground up bones into flour, and did the same thing with leather and shoe soles; they cut up old skins and furs to make noodles of a kind and they cooked glue. And when the grass came up, they began to dig up the roots and ate the leaves and the buds, they used everything there was; dandelions, and burdocks and bluebells and willowroot, and sedums and nettles..."

An eyewitness noted that: "...the fertile Ukrainian soil was covered with human corpses...I saw how special brigades gathered the corpses from the streets and houses, and carted them to common graves, or simply threw them in ravines." The Italian Consul in Kharkov, the capital of Ukraine reported that there was: "a growing commerce in human meat" and that people in the countryside were killing and eating their own children. The authorities responded by distributing posters that read: 'EATING DEAD CHILDREN IS BARBARISM'. People knew that there was food in the cities and desperately tried to flee the countryside. In Kharkov in 1932, the police recovered 250 corpses every morning from the railway station.

Despite the massive scale of the famine, a deliberate conspiracy of silence was enforced and doctors were forbidden to disclose on death certificates that the deceased had starved to death. Figures on the number of people who died during the famine in Ukraine are difficult to determine accurately. Estimates vary between 5 and 8 million equivalent to between 10 to 25 per cent of the entire population of the Ukraine.

The Ukrainian famine finally ended in 1934 when Stalin ordered a stop to the forced seizure of grain, and allowed each household to have a small plot of land on which to grow vegetables and raise a cow, a pig and up to ten sheep.

The Warsaw Ghetto: November 1940 to July 1942

The Germans invaded Poland in September of 1939. By October of 1940, they had confined approximately 380,000 Jews in a 3.5 square mile area of Warsaw that normally housed about 160,000. In March 1941, the population reached a peak of 445,000, representing about 30 per cent of the Warsaw population. The area was surrounded by a 10 foot high wall and was sealed off on 15 November 1940. Jews were forbidden to go outside the area without permission on penalty of being shot on sight and no contact with the outside world was allowed. The Germans calculated that they could destroy the population in the Warsaw Ghetto in nine months through mass starvation and the accompanying infectious diseases.

Rationing in Poland had begun in December 1939. By 1941, the official ration provided 2,613 kcals per day for Germans in Poland, 699 kcals for Poles, and 184 kcals for Jews in the ghetto. Whilst the severe food shortage affected the whole of Warsaw, those outside the ghetto were able to trade with farmers. Inside the ghetto access to food was much worse. The poor hygiene within the ghetto reignited typhus and an epidemic flared up. A further hardship was the cold. In December 1941, the Nazis requisitioned all furs for their soldiers at the Russian front. The electricity supply to the Ghetto was cut off for extended periods and the practice of sleeping in clothes facilitated the spread of typhus through lice.

People of all ages began to die in droves. Between November 1940 and June 1942, doctors working inside the ghetto recorded a total of 70,381 deaths of which 18,237 were due to starvation, 2,509 to typhus and the remaining to 'unknown' causes, though this was usually believed to be starvation. This was equivalent to a Crude Death Rate (CDR) of approximately 125 deaths per 1,000 of the population per year. There was a seasonal pattern with higher death rates during the cold winter months than the summer.

One observer gives a harrowing account of the desperation within the Ghetto:

"People of all ages died in the streets, in shelters, in homes, and in hospitals. Wdowinski used to walk about one kilometre from his home to Czyste Hospital, and often saw six to ten bodies lying in the street each day. Night-time created a special hazard because: '... even the most courageous or insensitive lost their nerve when, in the darkness of the night, they happened to accidentally step on some soft object that turned out to be a cadaver'. Those found dead on the street usually had not died there. The family commonly removed a body from their home onto the street, after removing all evidence of identity. In that way, they might be able to use the extra ration card for a few days...mothers hid dead children under beds for days in order to receive a larger food ration."

Because the Jews were able to smuggle some food into the Ghetto, the Germans were unable to starve all the inhabitants. Mass deportation of Jews in the Ghetto to the gas chambers in the extermination camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz began on 22 July 1942 and the Ghetto was finally razed to the ground in May 1943.

The siege of Leningrad: September 1941 to January 1944

In September 1941 Leningrad was surrounded by German forces and the order issued to "tighten up the blockade and level the city to the ground by shelling from the air". During the 900 days of the siege, there was incessant aerial bombing and shelling from long-range guns. The winter of 1941 to 1942 was particularly severe and the coldest in more than a century. A lack of fuel had reduced the power supply, badly affecting heating and restricting cooking, the water and sewerage systems were damaged by shelling and there were increasing food shortages.

Supplies could not be airlifted in because of the activities of the Luftwaffe though some provisions could be brought in by lorry across the iced-over Lake Ladoga. The ration of bread, which was 500 grams for manual workers and 300 grams for 'mental' workers in September 1941, fell to an all time low in December 1941 of 250 grams for manual workers and 125 grams for 'mental' workers (equivalent to a maximum of about 438 kcals to 875 kcals per day) supplemented with a meat ration of between 75 and 150 grams per month and small amounts of sugar, fat, potatoes and other vegetables. Not only were the rations small, but the nutritional value of the bread was low, consisting of "about onehalf defective rye flour, the rest being substitutes such as cellulose, malt, and bran". The population grew some food in parks and gardens, but were reportedly reduced to eating rats, glue from furniture joints and wall paper.

Lyudmila Anopova, who was a child during the siege described her experience of the winter of 1941 to 1942 as follows:

"... all the provisions in the town were burned - and with them all traces of the old life. Famine descended upon Leningrad... That was the beginning of the worst winter in living memory. They cut off the water supply. The Neva was close by, only 500 meters away. But how could we reach it? We lowered sledges, saucepans and milk churns from the fourth floor. We made our way slowly to the Neva, across the snowdrifts, and scooped up freezing water from the ice holes... The windows are boarded up with plywood. It's dark everywhere. The only warmth is in the kitchen by the iron stove, and a tiny wick is burning on the table. It's just a twisted piece of cloth dipped in oil... I'm hungry every moment of the day. Provisions are sold on ration books. We have to stand in a long queue at the shop on Kirovsky Prospect. For our six ration books we get a little millet, some dry onion, now and again a piece of frozen meat. We stand there for hours. We are frozen but we wait and suffer in silence. In the morning, we do not have the strength to get up... I have no need to dress. We sleep in our overcoats."

Weight loss was estimated to be up to 33 per cent of prestarvation weight while scurvy, pellagra and night blindness had all appeared by the end of the winter. Diseases such as dysentery, bronchopneumonia and tuberculosis were rampant and a typhus epidemic started but was controlled. Estimates of deaths attributable to starvation during the siege range from 630,000 to 1 million out of a pre-war population of 2.5 million, equivalent to a crude death rate of between 112 and 178 per 1,000 of the population per year.

The Chinese Famine: 1958 to 1962

China has traditionally been a 'land of famine'. The extent of the 1958-62 famine dwarfed previous famines, however, and yet it remained a secret for over 20 years. The scale of the famine only became internationally known in the mid-1980s when American demographers were able to examine Chinese population statistics. The findings were shocking: at least 30 million people had starved to death making it the worst famine in human history.

The great Chinese famine took place during Mao's Great Leap Forward which was launched in January 1958. The 'two generals' that Mao said would modernise China were steel and grain production. Mao, therefore, initiated a crash industrialisation programme, in which steel output would be doubled or trebled within a year. The entire country set up smelters to create steel in backyard furnaces. Everyone had to meet a quota by handing over their metal possessions ranging from bicycles, iron bedsteads and door knobs to iron griddles, woks and pans. To fire the furnaces, huge numbers of trees had to be cut down. The lumps of metal which emerged from the backyard furnaces were to be used in the mechanisation of agriculture. Unfortunately they turned out to be useless.

Enforced collectivisation of agriculture and the obligatory procurement of grain harvests at low prices by the state had been started in the mid-1950s. In 1958, 'people's communes' were established, private plots abolished and communal kitchens set up. State grain procurements were also increased as were grain taxes on peasants. Mao drew up an eightpoint blueprint for all Chinese agriculture which every farmer had to follow. The results were disastrous including the campaign to reduce pests. The whole country was turned out to make a noise, beating drums and pans, to prevent sparrows from landing anywhere until they fell down dead with exhaustion. Without the birds to prey on them, however, insects multiplied causing damage to crops.

The situation was exacerbated during the period 1959 to 1961 by several natural disasters. As a result, agricultural production dropped dramatically and despite wildly exaggerated claims of bumper harvests reported by Party cadres, there were huge food shortages. Per capita grain supply fell from 307 kg/year in 1956 to 235 kg/year in 1961 while the daily food energy availability fell to an estimated national average of 1,535 calories in 1960.

By the autumn of 1958, conditions, especially in the predominantly rural areas of the northern provinces, had begun to deteriorate drastically. The grain in the collective granaries began to run out and food from the collective kitchens became sparser and sparser. Leaves, ground corn stalks, wild grasses and anything else that the peasants could gather were added to the communal pot.

In the autumn of 1959, the grain harvest dropped by at least 30 million tonnes over that of 1958, but officials reported that it was much higher. The state procurement target was set at 40 per cent of total output and in many places the entire harvest was seized together with all livestock, vegetables and cash crops. Party leaders were sent to villages to search for hidden grain reserves. The peasants were not permitted to cook at home and the 'internal passport' was introduced banning peasants from travelling without permission. It was a brutal and violent campaign.

One of the famine survivors was Mrs Liu who recalled the winter of 1959-60:

"On the muddy path leading from her village, dozens of corpses lay unburied. In the barren fields there were others; and amongst the dead, the survivors crawled slowly on their hands and knees searching for wild grass seeds to eat. In the ponds and ditches people squatted in the mud hunting for frogs and trying to gather weeds. It was winter, and bitterly cold, but...everyone was dressed only in thin and filthy rags tied together with bits of grass and stuffed with straw...Sometimes she saw her neighbours and relatives simply fall down as they shuffled through the village and die without a sound... The dead were left where they died because... no one had the strength to bury them... She remembered, too, the unnatural silence. The village oxen had died, the dogs had been eaten and the chickens and ducks had long ago been confiscated by the Communist Party in lieu of grain taxes. There were no birds left in the trees, and the trees themselves had been stripped of their leaves and bark. At night there was no longer even the scratching of rats and mice, for they too had been eaten or had starved to death."

Out of 300 people who had lived in Mrs Liu's village at the start of the famine, only 80 survived.

China's leaders appeared to have been unaware of the severity of the famine until it was too late to prevent a catastrophe. Grossly exaggerated harvests were reported and those brave enough to suggest that there was a problem were labelled as 'right-wing opportunists'. As a result, China continued to export grain while the famine raged. Over a three year period from 1958, China doubled grain exports and cut imports of food. It was only in 1961 that China stopped exporting grain and international supplies of grain were called on to compensate for food shortages inside the country.

Sudan: 1998

South Sudan has been embroiled in war since 1983 and experienced a number of famines since then. The 1988 famine was responsible for an estimated 250000 deaths in Bahr El Ghazal alone. The 1998 famine, like the 1988 famine, was man made and resulted in an estimated 60,000 deaths. This time the influence of one man in particular was significant: Commander Kerubino Kuanyin Bol. This governmentbacked warlord and his army inflicted terror and caused massive displacement in Northern Bar El Ghazal (NBEG), his home province, for the three years preceding the famine. Though other factors contributed to the crisis in NBEG, it was the activities of Kerubino and the hostilities in and around Wau, Gogrial, Abyei and Aweil that provided the shock that pushed the region over the brink.

Ajiep (the epicentre of the famine) suffered from chronic insecurity for several years after Kerubino defected from the SPLM (Southern Peoples Liberation Movement) in 1994. An estimated 70 per cent of the population were forced out of their homes and families lost their productive assets such as livestock. Humanitarian agencies operating in the area had to evacuate staff and programmes were disrupted as a result of military raids in April 1998. This was followed by a further raid in May in which an estimated 300 citizens were killed and 7 thousand head of cattle were stolen. The devastation caused by the military action came on top of two consecutive years of drought, which not only affected crop yields but had an adverse impact on other important food sources such as wild foods, fish, and grazing land for livestock.

On 4th February 1998, just 6 days after the outbreak of renewed hostilities and the initial movement of people had begun, the Government of Sudan (GOS) imposed a blanket suspension of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) flights to the BEG and Lakes Region. The flight ban came at the most critical moment of the OLS response. The flight ban was lifted on the 26th February when the GOS granted clearance to four airstrips. Rather than improving the humanitarian situation, however, this very limited clearance actually exacerbated the crisis by turning each of these locations into an 'aid magnet' drawing populations in throughout the region in search of food. The influx of people quickly overloaded local and OLS capacity, created tensions between the host and displaced populations, and set a precedent for displaced groups moving from location to location in search of food. As these were the most vulnerable many died on route. Many others died when they reached a location and were not selected in the targeting process for humanitarian aid.

By March 1998 there was a sharp slide in the nutritional status in NBEG. By May the famine was 'visible' with media images showing thousands of southern Sudanese starving and close to death. By July, the famine was advanced with many in the humanitarian assistance community describing the emergency and its scale as one of the worst they had ever witnessed. A number of agencies admitted for the first time that the scale of the problem was overwhelming their capacity and that they were not coping.

In August surveys showed that the prevalence of acute malnutrition in many areas of the region was as high as 70 to 80 per cent while crude mortality rates reached up to 69.7/10,000/day in some places and up to 121 deaths per day in Ajiep. Estimates of the population in need of food aid rose monthly from 250,000 in January 1998 to 1,000,000 in August 1998. Agencies were forced to reduce the admission criteria for severely malnourished as feeding centres could not cope with the numbers arriving for treatment.

Mothers were suspected of withholding food from their children so that the child would be eligible for treatment at centres and the family would receive the general ration given to the family of admitted children. Parents were temporarily 'abandoning' their children so that they would be accepted in care centres for unaccompanied minors. Agencies attempted to target the 'most' vulnerable with the scarce resources available although in a situation where everyone was vulnerable this just did not work.

By September 1998, the relief programme had scaled up considerably with large quantities of resources being delivered (almost 10,000 metric tonnes per month). By November early signs of improvement were evident and by December the situation while fragile was stabilising in many areas.

In October 1998 the communities were beginning to ask questions as to whether it had done anything to be ashamed of. Particular stories were being told and analysed to see where the society had let down the individuals or individuals had let down the values of society, one such story follows.

"A man set out in June with his two sons to return to his home area, but on arrival found that there were no food distributions going on there. He therefore decided to return with his sons to the nearest place where he could receive food - Acongcong - but on the way the father died. The elder of the two brothers was faced with the threat that all male members of the family could die if they stayed so that the lineage would also perish (riar) - a fate worse than death. He therefore decided that the best thing to do would be to abandon his younger brother, who was slowing him down, with his father's corpse and continue to Acongcong alone at least to make sure that he survived. When he reached Acongcong, a team was dispatched to try and find the child, but while it was away the older boy died. It seemed that the lineage had perished after all, until the team returned with the younger child, still alive."

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Reference this page

Fiona Watson (1999). One hundred years of famine – a pause for reflection. Field Exchange 8, November 1999. p19.