Droughts and Famines

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Droughts are unusually long periods of insufficient rainfall.

Since ancient times droughts have had far-reaching effects on humankind by causing the failure of crops, decreasing natural vegetation, and depleting water supplies. Livestock and wildlife, as well as humans, die of thirst and famine; large land areas often suffer damage from dust storms or fire.

Famines are extreme shortages of food that cause people to die of starvation.

  • Where: Egypt
  • When: 1200-02
  • The Egyptian people relied on the annual flooding of the Nile River to leave soil for growing crops. After a shortage of rain, however, the Nile didn't rise. People were unable to grow food and began to starve to death. The final death toll was 110,000, due to starvation, cannibalism, and disease.
  • Where: Ireland
  • When: 1845-49
  • Potatoes were the mainstay of the Irish diet. When the crop was struck by a potato blight (a fungus that killed the crop), farmers and their families began to starve. The grain and livestock raised in Ireland were owned by the English, and the laws of the time prevented the Irish people from importing grain to eat. This combination of plant disease and politics resulted in the Great Potato Famine, which killed 1.5 million people and caused a million more to move to America.
  • Where: The Great Plains of the U.S.
  • When: 1930s
  • The U.S. experienced its longest drought of the twentieth century. Peak periods were 1930, 1934, 1936, 1939, and 1940. During 1934, dry regions stretched solidly from New York and Pennsylvania across the Great Plains to the California coast. A great “dust bowl” covered 50 million acres in the south central plains during the winter of 1935–1936. Heavy winds caused the dry soil to be blown into huge clouds. Crops and pasture lands were ruined by the harsh dust storms, which also proved a severe health hazard.
  • Where: Northern China
  • When: 1959-61
  • The world's deadliest famine killed an estimated 30 million people in China. Drought was followed by crop failure, which was followed by starvation, disease, and cannibalism. News of the famine was not revealed to the rest of the world until 1981, some 20 years later.
  • Where: Biafra, Africa (present-day Nigeria)
  • When: 1967-69
  • As a result of civil war, famine conditions killed an estimated 1 million people and left another 3.5 million suffering from extreme malnutrition.
  • Where: Europe
  • When: 2003
  • Drought conditions and a heat wave, one of the worst in 150 years, broke temperature records from London to Portugal, fueled forest fires, ruined crops, and caused thousands of deaths. (French fatalities estimated at more than 14,000.)

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