What is a famine? How the UN measures lack of food in Gaza and elsewhere

Five-stage scale is used to assess level of food insecurity and starvation

Palestinian children wait to collect food rations from a charity kitchen in Deir Al Balah, amid the continuing war in Gaza. Bloomberg
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Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza six months ago, the UN and humanitarian agencies have repeatedly warned that Palestinians were at risk of famine.

This week, the director of USAID became the first American official to publicly say that famine had started in parts of the enclave.

Samantha Power told US Congress that the findings of a UN-backed report, which said that people in northern Gaza were already facing famine, were “credible.”

The report, released last month by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), warned that 1.1 million Gazans faced “catastrophic hunger.”

“The famine threshold for household acute food insecurity has already been far exceeded,” the report said, back in March. It predicted that without a ceasefire, the entire population of Gaza would face famine by July.

Since then, humanitarian agencies have warned that the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate following the failure to secure a ceasefire in the enclave during Ramadan.

With officials continuing to warn of continuing or impending famine in Gaza, here is an explanation of what they mean.

What is a famine?

Famine refers to a situation where there is extreme or widespread scarcity of food.

This leads to acute malnutrition and starvation.

It can be caused by various factors, ranging from crop failure and natural disasters to war or government policies.

While many countries and regions face shortages of food, famine is only declared by the UN when certain conditions are met.

How does the UN define famine?

The UN assesses famines using the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which formed the basis of its report on Gaza in March.

The IPC is a five-stage scale that measures food security. It ranges from Phase 1, which is none or minimal food insecurity, to Phase 5, which is a food insecurity catastrophe or famine.

What are the five stages of the IPC scale?

Minimal/none: The first stage is none or minimal. In this case, people have access to essential and non-essential foods and their needs are met without having to engage in any unusual attempts to secure food.

Stressed: The second stage is 'stressed.' Here, households have “minimally adequate” food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food items.

Crisis: The third stage is 'crisis.' In this stage, people either have “food consumption gaps” that are reflected by high levels of “acute malnutrition,” or they are able to meet their minimal food needs, but only through selling some assets or deploying crisis strategies.

Emergency: In the fourth stage, the UN declares an “emergency.” In a food security emergency, the lack of food is leading to “very high acute malnutrition” and excess deaths. Households are only able to cope with the lack of food by “employing emergency livelihood strategies” or liquidating their assets.

Urgent action is required to save lives and livelihoods.

Catastrophe/Famine: The fifth stage of the IPC scale is a catastrophe or a famine. In this case, households have an extreme lack of food and basic needs, even after they have tried all of their coping strategies.

“Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.”

Urgent action is required to prevent widespread death and the total collapse of livelihoods.

What is the difference between a food catastrophe and famine?

The UN considers a catastrophe to be a famine if the area affected has “extreme critical levels of acute malnutrition and mortality.”

Which countries are currently experiencing famine?

The UN has listed Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen as among the “hunger hotspots” that require the most urgent attention.

At least 19 million people in Yemen suffer from acute food insecurity, including 2.25 million children under the age of five, according to the UN last year.

South Sudan, Burkina Faso and Mali are all in the midst of famine, according to Action Against Hunger, which cites armed conflict as the primary factor in all three.

About 30 million people in 22 countries face famine if urgent aid is not provided, it added.

Millions also face the prospect of famine in Sudan, which has been ravaged by a civil war for a year.

Nearly quarter of a million children face famine in Sudan

Nearly quarter of a million children face famine in Sudan

What did the IPC report find?

The UN has repeatedly warned of the risk of famine in Gaza.

The IPC report released in March described the situation as “catastrophic.” It said that northern Gaza, where Israel has limited the amount of aid allowed to enter, was “facing imminent famine.”

The IPC conducted its initial analysis in December, after two months of war, and warned that a famine would occur by the end of May without a ceasefire and the increase of aid to the population.

In its March report, it found that the conditions to prevent famine had not been met, and that “the latest evidence confirms that famine is imminent in the northern governorates and projected to occur anytime between mid-March and May 2024.”

“According to the most likely scenario, both North Gaza and Gaza governorates are classified in IPC Phase 5 (Famine) with reasonable evidence, with 70 per cent (around 210,000 people) of the population in IPC Phase 5 (Catastrophe),” the report found.

It classified Gaza's southern governorates of Deir Al Balah and Khan Younis as IPC Phase 4 (Emergency).

“The entire population in the Gaza Strip (2.23 million) is facing high levels of acute food insecurity,” the report said.

Famine imminent in north Gaza, says UN-backed report

Famine imminent in north Gaza, says UN-backed report

What has the UN said about famine in Gaza?

“The IPC announcement reflects the dire situation that the people of Gaza are facing,” said World Health Organisation director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Before this crisis, there was enough food in Gaza to feed the population. Malnutrition was a rare occurrence. Now, people are dying, and many more are sick. Over a million people are expected to face catastrophic hunger unless significantly more food is allowed to enter Gaza.”

UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk said in March that famine in Gaza “is human-made and was entirely preventable,” blaming the crisis on Israel’s restriction on aid, forced displacement of civilians, and destruction of much of Gaza’s vital infrastructure.

Children have been forced to make the perilous journey from northern to southern Gaza alone to try to find food, he added.

Gaza's children face 'severe malnutrition with complications', WHO warns

Gaza's children face 'severe malnutrition with complications', WHO warns

The UN said Gaza had the “highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area or country”.

Speaking in mid-March, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Israel to immediately allow aid into the besieged enclave.

“We must act now to prevent the unthinkable, the unacceptable and the unjustifiable,” he said.

Updated: April 12, 2024, 5:53 PM