Of all disasters, famine is perhaps the most damaging. There have been more references to its occurrence historically than any other type of disaster, and throughout history the state has been involved with famine far more closely than with earthquake, flood, tsunami, storm surges and other types of disaster. 1 Generally the number of people affected has been far greater in famines, and its social and political impact on the affairs of state and rulers has been more profound. Also, behind each case of excess mortality from famine there lies a much wider net of destitution, displacement and impoverishment that may endure for many years after the acute symptoms of famine have subsided.
The worst recorded earthquake disaster caused the deaths of about 240,000 people in 1976 at Tangshan (China), but in the twentieth century alone it is dwarfed by famines that have frequently caused the deaths of more than a million people. For example, 1.5 million perished in the famine of 1974 in Bangladesh, and between 900,000 and 2.4 million in North Korea between 1995 and 1999 (Noland et al. 1999). In the Chinese 'Great Leap Forward' famine of 1958-1961, the death toll is estimated at between 14 and 26 million (Kane 1988), or between 30 and 33 million (Becker 1996), and possibly as high as 40 million (Article 19 1990:18). In some cases, mortality statistics are unreliable, and the cause of death is disputed (e.g. between bubonic plague and starvation in Europe in the 1340s, and between deaths due to fighting or the slaughter of civilians, and the famine associated with war, e.g. Biafra 1968-1970). However, the scale of mortality dwarfs that of all other disasters. No other type of disaster has caused as many deaths as famine (in the order of 70 million deaths in the twentieth century: Devereux 2000), although it is not surprising that estimates vary greatly.
Today, famines still occur, although the affected regions are substantially different to those of the past. Famine is now unlikely in south, east and south-east Asia (the exceptions being North Korea from the mid-1990s up to the time of writing in early 2003, and Cambodia in the 1970s), but are