What is Famine?

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) defines famine as an extreme deprivation of food. Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical levels of acute malnutrition are or will likely be evident.

A Famine classification (IPC Phase 5) is the highest phase of the IPC Acute Food Insecurity scale, and is attributed when an area has at least 20% of households facing an extreme lack of food, at least 30% of children suffering from acute malnutrition, and two people for every 10,000 dying each day due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.


The IPC acute Food Insecurity Scale

has become the global standard for the classification of acute food insecurity. It is used principally to inform decisions on resource allocation and programming globally and within countries, especially for countries experiencing recurrent or protracted food crises.


Phase 1 None/Minimal
Households are able to meet essential food and non-food needs without engaging in atypical and unsustainable strategies to access food and income.


Phase 2 Stressed
Households have minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food expenditures without engaging in stress-coping strategies.


Phase 3 Crisis
Households either:
• Have food consumption gaps that are reflected by high or above-usual acute malnutrition;
• Are marginally able to meet minimum food needs but only by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies


Phase 4 Emergency
Households either:
• Have large food consumption gaps which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality;
• Are able to mitigate large food consumption gaps but only by employing emergency livelihood strategies and asset liquidation


Phase 5 Catastrophe/ Famine
Households have an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs even after full employment of coping strategies. Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident. For Famine Classification, area needs to have extreme critical levels of acute malnutrition and mortality.



is a classification of IPC Phase 5 at area level. In a given area, famine occurs when food security, nutrition and mortality altogether portray famine conditions, meaning at least 20% of the population is affected, with about one out of three children being acutely malnourished and two people dying per day for every 10,000 inhabitants due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.


Households may be classified in IPC Phase 5 Catastrophe even if the area is not classified in IPC Phase 5 Famine. This is the case when less than 20 percent of the population is experiencing famine conditions and/or when malnutrition and/or mortality levels have not (or not yet) reached famine thresholds. Even if an area has not been classified as being in Famine, it is still crucial to identify households that are facing Catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity.


What is Famine Likely

Based on the IPC protocols, a Famine classification requires evidence on food security, nutrition and mortality at or above IPC Phase 5 thresholds. If there is insufficient data for Famine classification, usually because either nutrition or mortality data are lacking, but the avail¬able information indicates that Famine is likely occurring or will occur, then the famine classification is called ‘Famine Likely’. Famine Likely classification thus allows the IPC to warn about potential Famine in con¬texts when there is limited data. Famines tend to occur in areas where access is not possible or very restricted, which has implications on the ability to collect data and makes it difficult to meet all the criteria for a Famine classification. Based on this observation, it has been realized that famine situations can be reliably identified and classified through a robust analysis process using available data. Based on those experiences, the IPC Global Support Unit and IPC partners have agreed to 'institutionalize' the Famine Likely methodology and classification and to add it to the famine protocols of the IPC Technical Manual Version 3.0. Even in cases with less than optimal evidence, Famine Likely applied to projections acts as an early warning mechanism and allows the IPC to inform decisions and humanitarian response to help food insecurity crises from deteriorating further. It is important to note that Famine and Famine Likely are equally severe, the only difference is the amount of reliable evidence available to support the statement.


Risk of Famine refers to the reasonable probability of an area going into Famine in the projected period. While this is not perceived necessarily as the most likely scenario, it is a scenario that generally has a realistic chance of occurring. It complements the Famine and Famine Likely projections of the most likely scenario by providing insights of potential Famine if prospects evolve in a manner worse than anticipated.



The last decade has witnessed two examples of famine classification, in Somalia in 2011 and in South Sudan in 2017, that resulted in widespread acute malnutrition and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The famines in Somalia and South Sudan were extreme food crises in which large populations lacked adequate access to food, mainly driven by conflict and erratic weather patterns.

Somalia, 2011

On July 20, 2011, the FAO-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia (FSNAU) and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) declared a famine in parts of Southern Somalia including Balcad and Cadale districts of Middle Shabelle, the Afgoye corridor IDP settlement, and the Mogadishu IDP community. About 490,000 people in Somalia were experiencing Catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 5) due to conflict, drought, and poor rains.

Link to analysis:
FEWS NET FSNAU EA Evidence for a Famine Declaration 07 2011 (pdf)

South Sudan, 2017

Famine was declared in parts of South Sudan on February 20, 2017, where nearly 80,000 people faced Famine conditions (IPC Phase 5) in parts of Unity State (the central-northern part of South Sudan), with another one million people being classified in Emergency (IPC Phase 4). By then, three years of civil war had devastated livelihoods, coupled with an ailing economy and high food prices. Unity State, which borders Sudan, was at the centre of some of the fiercest fighting, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee from their homes.

Link to analysis:
South Sudan: Acute Food Insecurity Situation for January 2017 and Projections for February - April 2017 and May - July 2017


Famines should be avoided at all costs. Although further deaths can and should be prevented by urgent action, it is evident that these actions will be, de facto, a late response because many people will have died by the time a famine is declared.

The IPC supports famine prevention by highlighting the following:

Early Warning/Action

Early warning messages should trigger early response, especially for households classified in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) and Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) to save lives and livelihoods. This requires a robust multi-stakeholder monitoring tool of all drivers and outcomes of food insecurity.

Multi-sectoral Response

A massive multi-sectoral response is critical to prevent additional deaths and total livelihood/social collapse. This includes coordinated access to food, agricultural inputs, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), health and nutrition response, among others.

Humanitarian Access

Humanitarian access is a fundamental pre-requisite to effective humanitarian action to avert famine conditions. Full and unimpeded access is essential to establish operations, as well as move goods and personnel where they are needed.

Cessation of Conflicts

Where conflict is a key driver of famine conditions, the suspension of active hostilities will allow for the urgent provision of humanitarian assistance to affected populations.

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