In Gaza and elsewhere, there may be an underlying pattern that may result in starvation and death

The United Nations' Latest report on hunger makes for dark reading. On April 24, 2024, the international body released its annual Global Report on Food Crises showing this 281.6 million people were affected by acute hunger in 2023.

And the signs for 2024 suggest worse is to come back. In March, the United Nations' highest technical body assessing food and nutrition crises warned of a “impending faminein Gaza. The UN also warned of situations in… Sudan, Haiti and other countries around the globe.

For those of us concerned with global hunger issues, the situations in Gaza, Sudan, Haiti, and a number of other countries reflect a growing trend by which severe crises—often, but not only, conflict-related—are the results Danger of famine occurring.

But how and under what conditions does famine occur?

Current academic Thinking suggests that famines might be viewed as complex systems. As a scientist who does research Hunger and humanitarian relief effortsI desired to see if it was possible to discover a consistent underlying pattern in the way in which these systems formed.

So I developed one in 2018 Hunger system model It identifies five elements that describe the event of those crises. First, they require intense pressure on a population, which is then held in place by a “hold” that forestalls that pressure from easing. This creates a self-reinforcing dynamic that may end up in a famine system – where a “famine” is commonly officially declared – resulting in a rapid increase in malnutrition and mortality. Eventually a realignment occurs.

A representation of the hunger system model

Paul Howe, CC BY

To higher understand how the model works, it’s value examining each of its phases:

1. Increase pressure

The pressures in a hunger cycle result from a mixture of disruptive aspects and vulnerability. Confounders are things that affect a population's ability to acquire the food it needs from normal sources. For example within the Famine in Somalia 2011–2012A mixture of successive droughts and an increase in global food prices made it difficult for communities to grow or buy food and maintain their livestock.

Vulnerability refers back to the susceptibility of a population – or parts of that population – to those crises, based on the resources and options available to them, in addition to their food and nutrition status. In the case of Somalia, certain clans with limited support networks to show to for help were particularly vulnerable.

When disruptive aspects are strong and widespread and vulnerability is high, the pressure might be great.

A waiter ladles soup into a container as children line up to receive food at a shelter.
Children are ravenous in Haiti because the country descends into chaos.
AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File

2. Sustained Holds

A halt is a condition that forestalls the affected population from being relieved from famine pressures. Natural congestion occurs after a drought when the rhythm of the agricultural cycle signifies that the subsequent crop is not going to arrive for an additional 12 months. Economic delays may very well be linked to a chronic period of elevated global food prices. Political blocks can involve ongoing conflicts or policies that make an area inaccessible.

If these holds prevent famine relief aid from arriving – or prevent the population from leaving the country – they’re extremely impermeable. This often happens during sieges, reminiscent of: The German encirclement of Leningrad in World War II.

During the Siege of Sarajevo within the Nineteen NinetiesHowever, the hold was more permeable and a few aid and trade reached the population, helping to forestall famine.

3. Self-reinforcing dynamics

When strong pressure is maintained through a hold, it results in self-reinforcing dynamics reminiscent of: B. a rapid increase in local food prices, a decline in wages and asset prices and a resulting deterioration when it comes to trade. This makes it even tougher for those affected to eat enough nutrients.

The dynamic also can result in a breakdown in social norms. The population can resort to theft or rioting. Wherever possible, populations often migrate in the hunt for higher conditions or assistance. Combinations of those dynamics have been observed in historical contexts, from the biblical siege of Samaria to the Great Irish Famine of the late 1840s to the recent crisis in Somalia.

A girl carries a pot of food.
Palestinians in Gaza face “imminent famine,” the United Nations has warned.
Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images

4. Emerging famine systems

If the self-reinforcing dynamic shouldn’t be stopped, at a certain point a population's ability to fend off the crisis can be exhausted and the situation will tip right into a famine system. A key feature of this model is the popularity that these interacting parts of the system often work together to cause relatively sudden increases in malnutrition and deaths.

Although this shouldn’t be at all times the case, there may be a “classic” pattern for famine systems – be it in Somalia in 2011-2012 or in Leningrad in 1941-1942 steep rise and high mortality peak. This is the period when famine can clearly be declared, but it’s also too late to forestall lack of life.


Eventually, a realignment of the system occurs – often signaled by a decline in mortality. This can occur for 2 major reasons. First, the hunger system has already affected probably the most vulnerable people – reminiscent of children and the elderly or socially marginalized groups – and due to this fact cannot sustain high mortality rates. The second possibility is that the important thing hurdles are lifted and the self-reinforcing dynamic is counteracted, for instance by a brand new bumper harvest or the availability of increased humanitarian aid.

How Gaza suits the model

Given the crises the world is currently facing, I’m deeply concerned to see elements of this model coming together in multiple places.

For example, the extraordinary pressure within the northern Gaza Strip is as a consequence of the disruptive nature of the conflict, which affects a vulnerable population with few livelihood options. This is as a consequence of limited access to food as a consequence of inadequate humanitarian aid and the collapse of local markets. Self-reinforcing dynamics include price increases and social unrest, especially at food delivery locations. And that rapid increase in malnutrition could indicate the emergence of a famine system within the north of the territory.

However, the model also suggests that famines usually are not inevitable. Providing hold releases can provide urgent assistance to counter pressures, alleviate self-reinforcing dynamics, and save lives and alleviate suffering by stopping the emergence of hunger systems.

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