Project Outline

  • Places where it is most severe
  • Major reasons for recurring food scarcity
  • Trends over time

Research Information


Recent examples include Ethiopia in 1973 and mid-1980s, Sudan in the late-1970s and again in 1990 and 1998. The 1980 famine in Karamoja, Uganda was, in terms of mortality rates, one of the worst in history. 21% of thepopulation died, including 60% 0f the infants.

In October 1984, television reports around the world carried footage of starving Ethiopians whose plight was centered around a feeding station near the town of Korem. BBC newsreader Michael Buerk gave moving commentary of the tragedy on 23 October 1984, which he described as a "biblical famine". This prompted the Band Aid single, which was organised by Bob Geldof and featured more than 20 other pop stars. The Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia raised further funds for the cause. An estimated 900,000 people die within one year as a result of the famine, but the tens of millions of pounds raised by Band Aid and Live Aid are widely believed to have saved the lives of around 6,000,000 more Ethiopians who were in danger of death. More than 20 years on, famine and other forms of poverty are still affecting Ethiopia


  • African famines have become more frequent, more widespread and more severe. Many African countries are not self-sufficient in food production, relying on income from cash crops to import food. Agriculture in Africa is susceptible to climatic fluctuations, especially droughts which can reduce the amount of food produced locally.
  • Other agricultural problems include soil infertility, land degradation and erosion, and swarms of desert locusts which can destroy whole crops and livestock diseases. The most serious famines have been caused by a combination of drought, misguided economic policies, and conflict. The 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia, for example, was the outcome of all these three factors, made worse by the Communist government's censorship of the emerging crisis. In Sudan at the same date, drought and economic crisis combined with denials of any food shortage by the then-government of President Gaafar Nimeiry, to create a crisis that killed perhaps 250,000 people—and helped bring about a popular uprising that overthrew Nimeiry.
  • Numerous factors make the food security situation in Africa tenuous, including political instability, armed conflict and civil war, corruption and mismanagement in handling food supplies, and trade policies that harm African agriculture. An example of a famine created by human rights abuses is the 1998 Sudan famine. AIDS is also having long-term economic effects on agriculture by reducing the available workforce, and is creating new vulnerabilities to famine by overburdening poor households. On the other hand, in the modern history of Africa on quite a few occasions famines acted as a major source of acute political instability
  • The sad reality of the last decade and a half is that Africa has not made progress. It fact, it has moved backwards not forwards. From 1981 till 2001, the number of Africans living in poverty doubled to 314 million from 164 million. The combination of conflict, disease, debt, poor governance and inadequate aid have produced human misery on a scale that is truly staggering.
  • Conflict has left some 15 million Africans displaced in their own countries and another 4.5 million refugees in neighboring countries – more than ten times the amount of people affected by the tsunami. The scourge of AIDS now affects over 25 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, it killed 2.3 million. It is a monstrous impediment to progress. It undercuts income. It contributes to food scarcity and forces families to exhaust savings and pull children out of school. AIDS is destroying the skills base Africa will need to grow, and is stretching social systems to the breaking point. If we don’t tackle the threats posed by the AIDS pandemic, by violent conflict, poor governance, aid and trade, our efforts to create a new future for Africa will produce depressingly meager results.
  • Sadly, in Africa, most countries are still as poor as they were 40 years ago. In some countries, life expectancy, having improved for many years, has fallen back to where it was in the 1960’s as a result of AIDS. It is an affront to humanity that more than 1 in 6 African children die before their fifth birthday. Only half the lucky ones that survive are able to complete their primary education before they have to join the work force. It is a moral outrage that 12 million children in Africa are orphans because of AIDS – an entire generation has been lost. While in Zambia a number of years ago, I was introduced to the concept of child-led families. This is where both parents had died of AIDS and where the eldest child, often very young themselves, was now responsible for the care of even younger siblings. Unfortunately, this is too often the reality of Africa today
  • The prolonged dry spells in southern Africa are affecting 401,200 and 407,000 people in Lesotho and Swaziland respectively, while in Zimbabwe, an estimated 2.1 million people continue to face a humanitarian crisis.
  • Climate change is likely to be aggravating the chronic food shortages in many parts of Eastern Africa. In some countries, at 95% of the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, most of it without irrigation. Erratic rainfall patterns continue to severely disrupt local food production.
  • "The drought has affected everyone," says Oscar Murengeratwari, a farmer in Burundi. "In former times I could never imagine that I would have to beg or get food assistance."
  • New research suggests that the climate change threat is greater in Africa than many parts of the world – on average the continent is 0.5°C warmer than it was a hundred years ago. And the changing weather patterns are already creating new complex emergencies where areas are simultaneously hit by drought and floods, often accompanied by outbreaks of infectious diseases.
  • Burundi, where more than half the population live on less than one US dollar a day, has been hit by a series of droughts and floods – for example, drought in 2006 followed by floods in 2007. This year, two million people have been hit by floods and in need of assistance, almost 25% of the population. Crops and livestock were destroyed. Many people, even today, only have one meal a day, others survive on food relief.
  • "The most visible aspect of climate change is famine – brought on by drought and floods," says Jean Marie Sabushimike, Professor of Geography at the University of Burundi.
  • There are also worrying signs of lakes and rivers drying up. In Fadis, the eastern part of Ethiopia, the River Boco has completely dried up - partly as a result of a lack of rainfall. The river used to be the main source of irrigation in the area. Yusuf Idris, a local village elder, remembers the fertile soil and orange groves that used to be here. Today his farm produces so little that his children end up having to go to nearby towns to sell their labour and engage in petty trade. Indeed, Yusuf and many others in the area have ended up living on food relief.
  • Nearby, Lake Haromaya, dried up four years ago. Today, it is a patchwork of small farms. Fatiya Abatish Jacob is a local trader who lived near the lake for 14 years. She laments: "I used to get my drinking water from the lake, now I have to walk 8 km to get it. Also there were many vegetables farmers round here using the water for irrigation and we used to get fish. Now there's no fish round here and vegetables are more expensive."
  • Adds Ahmed Abdi, who used to be a fisherman on the lake: "I used to catch Nile Perch and other small fish. Now I have no income." The lake also previously supplied water to the nearby town of Harar; the town now suffers from serious water shortages.
  • It is a similar situation in Rwanda. In Bugesera region, where around 40% of the people are never sure where their next meal is coming from, many farmers have suffered one bad harvest after another due to late or erratic rainfall.


The effectiveness of Famine Early Warning Systems (EWS) being used in Africa is being questioned because they are unable to provide sufficiently accurate information on the specific locations vulnerable to food scarcity. The data currently used to asses the emergence of local deficits are criticized as being inaccurate or belated. The range of strategies for coping with food deficits used by farmers and herders in rural Africa offers an alternative set of information which has the potential for improving the spatial specificity of EWS.

Four countries -- Mali, Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique -- and the Zambezi River Basin have been selected as the initial focus for collaboration on improving the availability and management of the continent's water resources within the framework of the UN System-wide Special Initiative on Africa. The availability of water has emerged as a critical issue in Africa's development in part because providing households with secure sources of water and making water available for rainfed and irrigated agriculture are seen as key elements in any strategy for poverty reduction.

Over 250 million people -- half of sub-Saharan Africa's population -- have no access to safe drinking water, and almost 300 million lack adequate sanitation. If the current situation does not improve, an estimated 500 million Africans are likely to be without safe water and sanitation by the year 2020, given the rate of population growth. Dwindling water supplies of lower quality, and at ever-higher costs, also will constrain food production and increase environmental degradation -- and may possibly result in conflict, among users within countries and across borders.

For these reasons, the goal of the Special Initiative's water component -- with the World Bank and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as the lead agencies -- is to ensure reasonable access to and a fair share of water at affordable prices for the poor majority throughout the continent. This "fair share" approach calls for balanced use of water across different sectors and needs, in national economic development plans and between countries using shared water resources.

The Special Initiative, launched by the UN in 1996, is a programme of concrete actions to accelerate African development over the coming decade by boosting access to basic education, health, and water, improving governance and increasing food security. It aims at achieving greater cooperation among the agencies and organizations of the UN family, including the Bretton Woods institutions, in support of Africa's development priorities.

Challenges of water supply

According to a recent World Bank study, African Water Resources: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development, two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa's rural population and one-quarter of urban dwellers currently lack access to potable water. Millions of Africans die each year from water-borne and water-related diseases.

In Africa, "water is unevenly distributed by nature and unevenly allocated by humans," said Dr. Jorge Illueca, Assistant Executive Director of UNEP. The poor spend "too much of their limited income, calories and time to get inadequate amounts of water," are most at risk from the lack of water availability, and are likely to pay the highest price for this scarcity, according to Dr. Illueca.

Another problem is that sub-Saharan Africa, a large portion of which is semi-arid, has "too little water or too much, in the wrong place or at the wrong time, and often of poor quality," according to the World Bank. Precipitation is highly variable and unpredictable across much of sub-Saharan Africa, and run-off -- the water which is removed from the soil over the surface or through drains beneath the surface -- is exceptionally low. Drought is endemic, often lasting from one to five years.

Agriculture already accounts for more than 80 per cent of water consumption in sub-Saharan Africa. But less than a third of Africa's irrigation potential is exploited. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in 1990, only 2 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's arable land was irrigated.

With an annual rate of population growth at nearly 3 per cent, crop yields must be increased significantly if countries are to advance towards food self-sufficiency. This means production must be expanded through better water harvesting, water and soil conservation, improved technology and farming practices, and increasing areas under irrigation. But only 4 per cent of the approximately 4 trillion cubic metres of renewable water available is currently being used, due to lack of appropriate infrastructure and technical and financial means.

In addition to its development benefits, efficient water management is becoming an ever more urgent environmental concern in a continent undergoing rapid growth in urbanization and industrialization, as well as population. These trends have worsened contamination of freshwater from domestic and industrial waste as well as agrochemicals.

Lack of national water strategies

In November 1995, a critical review of the status of the water sector was begun by the Working Group on Water Supply and Sanitation Development in Africa -- established under the aegis of the UN Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and composed of African water sector professionals. Among the problems it identified in a soon-to-be-released report were the lack of adequate national water strategies in many countries at a time when competition for water use has become more intense. This point was also stressed in a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which concluded that the single most important factor behind water scarcity is poor water policies.

In Africa, this problem is compounded by the low level of government spending on water supply and sanitation -- usually less than 1 per cent of the national budget -- along with poor operation and maintenance of water and sanitation infrastructure. The crisis extends beyond national borders as well. All countries in sub-Saharan Africa share one or more river basins, with at least 54 rivers or water bodies that cross or form international boundaries. But few are effectively managed in a joint manner.

Better cooperation and greater investment in shared water basins is needed, but so too is water policy reform at the national level. The first step in the process, say the experts, is to acknowledge water as a scarce resource and its centrality to poverty reduction, economic growth, food security and environmental protection.

A focus on collaboration

The Special Initiative on Africa is working to achieve UN system collaboration in support of the goal of equitable access to and sustainable use of the continent's water resources. A UN inter-agency Informal Working Group on Water was formed in April 1996, co-chaired by UNEP and the World Bank, to decide on practical steps to meet the four objectives of the Special Initiative's water cluster.

The working group agreed to designate the initial four target countries of Mali, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda, and the Zambezi River Basin based on their geographical representativity and on evidence of government commitment to integrated water resources management. The group also agreed that among the target countries, the broad goals of cooperation are to include capacity-building, improvement of information capacity, identification of investment requirements and stimulation of sector investment.

Under the water component's broad objective of equitable access to and sustainable use of water resources, activities under the Special Initiative will focus on:

-- assessments of national and regional water policies, plans and programmes in the context of their economic viability, environmental sustainability and equity impacts;
-- assistance in the development and application of guidelines for efforts aimed at the equitable access to and sustainable use of water resources; and
-- development and implementation of integrated water management projects and programmes.

Clean water and sanitation

Improving household water security, especially drinking water supply and sanitation, is another critical objective of the Initiative. Activities in support of this goal will include relevant capacity-building programmes, as well as support to governments to improve water and sanitation services and enable greater access at the community level. Efforts will also be made to improve protection of water resources in drainage basins.

As an example of inter-agency collaboration, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank agreed in October to work together in assisting African countries in the development and implementation of water, environmental sanitation and hygiene education programmes in villages, small towns and poor urban neighbourhoods and in extending services to the poor.

Expanding assessments of the continent's water resources is a third objective of the Initiative's water component. This aims at improving the data necessary for making sound decisions on water resources. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is involved within the framework of its World Hydrological Cycle Observing System (WHYCOS) -- a worldwide programme to improve cooperation in the development of consistent and reliable water information systems -- and the regional and subregional Hydrological Cycle Observing Systems (HYCOS).

WMO has begun work in the Zambezi River Basin, and has undertaken an appraisal of Ethiopia's capacity to assess its water resources and to provide services such as flood forecasts. Some of WMO's recommendations, including those concerning the rehabilitation of the observation and telecommunications network, have been endorsed by the government.

During a meeting in Djibouti in April, the directors of the Meteorological and Hydrological Services of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) countries in the Horn and East Africa discussed establishing a HYCOS for the IGAD region. WMO was requested to prepare the draft project profile, and efforts are under way to secure funding from the European Union. Uganda, another target country, will be involved in the IGAD-HYCOS as a member country of IGAD.

In Mali, WMO is executing a UNDP-funded project on meteorology and hydrology in support of agro-pastoral production and the protection of the environment. It has also prepared a project document with French funding to implement a HYCOS for the West and Central Africa regions. Mozambique, meanwhile, is participating in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) HYCOS project begun this year.

UN agencies in the Water Working Group, with bilateral agencies, regional organizations and the African Development Bank and other financial institutions, will use regional forums to mobilize resources for the Initiative's water component. They will encourage African and donor governments to facilitate preparation of relevant investment programmes. Non-governmental organizations, the private sector and academia also will be active participants in the Working Group's activities, particularly programme formulation, implementation and monitoring.

BOX 1:

Strengthening water basin management in the Zambezi

The Zambezi River Basin, shared by eight states and covering about 1.35 mn square kilometres, forms a major part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, where more than 70 million people lack access to safe water. At current population growth rates, the region faces chronic water shortages within two generations.

As the largest of the African river systems flowing into the Indian Ocean, sustaining some 26 mn people, the Zambezi River Basin has been selected as a focus by the Special Initiative's Informal Water Working Group to demonstrate coordination of UN efforts and inter-agency cooperation. A key lifeline for eight states, the Zambezi must be managed effectively to mitigate the effects on water supply of increased population, industrial and mining development, and greater irrigated food production.

Within the framework of the Special Initiative, UN agencies involved in the water sector are to compile information on all current or planned projects in the Zambezi basin area, for inclusion in a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) data base.

UNEP and SADC have developed a project for the equitable and sustainable use of shared water resources, which will be tested in a pilot project and sector studies in the Zambezi basin, and replicated in other water basins in the SADC region. The project hopes to result ultimately in a binding SADC agreement and in arrangements for avoiding and resolving disputes.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) are working on a project to rehabilitate and improve the network for monitoring water quality within the Zambezi basin, with data used to develop measures to control pollution. WMO also plans to use a satellite-based system to collect hydrometric data at selected sites in the upper part of the basin.

WMO has embarked on water resources assessment projects in shared river basins, aiming to establish consistent and reliable water data information systems for the benefit of sustainable development. A project with SADC is already under way which takes into account the Zambezi River Basin.

BOX 2:

FAO promotes African food security

The UN System-wide Special Initiative on Africa has targeted land degradation and desertification control, soil quality improvement and food security with a special emphasis on women as key priorities within its food security component. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been designated the lead agency in these areas, and is also a cooperating agency in the Initiative's component on water for food security.

Within the framework of the Initiative, FAO is working to improve water management, given that future increases in African food production will have to come from higher yields generated by improved production systems.

FAO is supporting the modernization of existing infrastructure and the development of cost-effective measures for sustainable food and fodder production through the promotion of the use of ground water in the Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone and the protection of inland water bodies from sea water salinization. Activities are under way to promote cost-effective improvements in food and fodder production through small-scale irrigation in several countries. An assessment of wetland inventory and development potential is planned for all the countries of the West African sub-region and some countries of Central Africa and Southern Africa. Data gathered will assist in planning increased agricultural productivity of farms in the wetlands, as well as in identifying solutions for environmental protection.

Working with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), FAO is developing a household food security project in the Gambia. Particular attention will be given to the role of women, who account for 60 per cent of the agricultural labour force (and may be responsible for up to 80 per cent of total food production in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa).

FAO is finalizing the development of a training package, "Socio-Economic and Gender Analysis," aimed at strengthening national planning capacities to develop gender-sensitive agricultural programmes. Pilot activities have begun in Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire. The agency has also started working with national statistical institutions to improve the availability of agricultural statistical data broken down by gender.

Preliminary studies are also being undertaken to document efforts to increase women's access to land and FAO is working to increase their access to agricultural services, notably agricultural extension and rural credit. Farmer-to-farmer training materials are being developed, as well as functional adult education materials for numeracy and simple bookkeeping.



URL’s :

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.