Links Between War & Famine: From the Chevauchée to Yemen, S. Sudan, Ukraine, and Syria

“Armed conflicts lead to hunger and reduced food production and economic growth in developing and transition countries. Reciprocally, food and economic insecurity and natural resource scarcities–real and perceived–often precipitate violence.”

-Marc Cohen and Per Pinstrup-Andersen (1999)

Recent images coming out of war-torn Yemen are heartbreaking. After three years of fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition (backed by the US, UK and France), an estimated eight million people are near starvation. The war has exacerbated the nutritional situation in what was already one of the poorest countries in the region, causing infrastructure to crumble and unemployment rates to skyrocket. A blockade of Yemen’s ports has also led to a rise in food prices and to a lack of medical supplies, leaving people dependent on insufficient amounts of food aid.


A malnourished infant in Yemen, with a low upper arm circumference (source: BBC).

This has been building for a while. Nearly two years ago, a BBC report cited statistics from the UN that 370,000 children in Yemen were starving. Even infants, who may be buffered from difficult economic conditions via breastfeeding, were not spared as many mothers were too malnourished to produce milk.

War and famine have often gone hand-in-hand. Which way the arrow of causality goes probably depends on the particular war in question, but the two are consistently intertwined. Sometimes war causes famine. At other times, it’s the other way around. For example, one study suggested that climate change created conditions that helped lead to the war in Syria (Kelley et al 2015). The argument went that a severe drought in 2007-10 reduced wheat production in the northern part of the country. This led to massive migration to urban areas, causing overcrowding and straining local resources. That, along with high unemployment and political tensions, may have led to the current armed conflict that has raged on for more than seven years.

As is the case in Yemen, famine and hunger are the result of war. This may be due to the deliberate use of hunger as a weapon, a byproduct of misplaced resources, a depletion or lack of security for the agricultural sector, or the inability of a nation to trade for food. During WW2, Japan’s food supply and resources were depleted by a combination of factors, including overspending on the military, a US naval blockade, and later a severe bombing campaign:

“In 1945 the rice harvest was the worst since 1909; rice imports were 11 per cent of their pre-war average; and rice rations tended to be odious admixtures of rice and seaweed or other unidentifiable ingredients. Fruit and vegetable production plunged; the latter down 81 per cent on the previous year. Sugar consumption averaged 3 pounds (4.1 kilograms) per capita compared with 30 pounds (14 kilograms) per capita before the war. Offshore fishery landings, at 348,000 tons (315,700 tonnes), were half their 1944 level. Tuberculosis and beriberi were common; malnutrition endemic. […]

They derived no hope from imports or the sale of raw materials for food; the US naval blockade had virtually sealed off the country. By the spring of 1945 oil, metal and other commodities were virtually exhausted. Japan had 12,346,000 barrels of oil in reserve in the first quarter of 1942, the wartime peak; by April 1945, it stored less than 200,000. The blockade ensured that Japan imported no oil in 1945. Turpentine, vegetable oil and charcoal were used as domestic fuel, and alcohol in aviation. The war machine was literally running out of gas.” (Ham, 2011: 134)

The effects of this can be seen in the way that Japanese children grew. Kunihiko Kimura (1984) noted that the average 10-year old Japanese boy had been getting taller over time, since the year 1900, as nutritional conditions and sanitation improved. However, there was an unmistakable reversal of this trend during the war years. Very often, war can literally shape our bodies, particularly when we are young and still developing. 

In addition, so-called “scorched earth” techniques have been used by armies for millennia as a strategy to deny military opponents resources or to punish civilian populations that support one’s rivals. During the Hundred Years War in the Middle Ages, soldiers used a strategy called the chevauchée, where they “would burn crops and buildings, kill the population and steal anything valuable before enemy forces could challenge them, often systematically laying regions to waste and causing great starvation.”

starvation weapon

Graffiti in Syria (“Starvation is the weapon of cowards”) source

While the techniques may have changed over the centuries, from medieval cavalries to airstrikes, the use of collective punishment against civilians has not. Last year, the siege of the Syrian city of Eastern Ghouta received international attention when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that the 350,000 residents were being deliberately starved, a clear violation of international humanitarian law.

east ghouta small

From Hani Abbas, March 2018 (source)

A similar situation recently occurred in South Sudan, where 1.25 million people were in the emergency phase of food insecurity (one step away from famine) at the end of 2017. Military restrictions on freedom of movement have prevented people there from farming, leading to a dwindling food supply. And in eastern Ukraine, the rate of food insecurity in 2017 was twice as high in non-government controlled areas (15.2%), where conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces was higher, than in government controlled ones (7.3%).

Entirely Man-Made

Two months ago, The World Food Program noted that of the 13 largest food crises in the world today, 10 — Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — were conflict-related. Food crises and outright famine may occur from natural phenomenon, such as a drought, a typhoon, or some blight that impacts crops. However, human activity is usually in the equation somewhere. 

For example, referring to the Irish famine of the 1840s, the contemporary journalist and activist John Mitchel said the famine was “artificial,” noting that “Potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” While the fungus may have been necessary for the famine, Mitchel and others argued that it was not sufficient to cause the famine. For that, a lack of response from the powers that be were also an essential part of the mix.

Likewise, PBS correspondent Jane Ferguson emphasized that the current famine in Yemen did not just simply happen. Human decisions created the conditions that have led to widespread misery:

“The hunger here, and this human catastrophe, is entirely man-made. Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, and the war has pushed an already needy people to the brink of famine.”

I think it’s important to remember this, that once a stable and functioning society is shattered by conflict, the effects will spread to the civilian population, with potentially devastating effects.

And, among those who survive, there is evidence that famines (whether deliberately imposed on a population or not) leave a mark on a population’s health that can last a lifetime. From the Holodomor in Ukraine in the 1930’s to the Dutch hunger winter of WW2, to the Biafran famine in the late 1960s (Lumey et al 2015; Painter 2005; Hult et al 2010), rates of chronic diseases in have increased decades following famine. This is consistent with the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) idea, where compromised prenatal and early postnatal biology can alter a body’s development, predisposing someone to later disease. 

Populations affected today will likely face similar health problems in the future, once the conflicts end and the food supply becomes more secure. Of course, the more pressing need is the immediate alleviation of food insecurity and famine. The amount of suffering that this has generated is tragic and criminal. It is also largely avoidable.


Cohen MJ, Pinstrup-Andersen P. 1999. Food security and conflict. Social Research. 66(1):375-416. Link

Ham P. 2011. Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath. Thomas Dunne: New York Link

Hult M, Tornhammar P, Ueda P, Chima C, Bonamy AK, Ozumba B, Norman M. 2010. Hypertension, diabetes and overweight: looming legacies of the Biafran famine. PLoS One. 5(10):e13582. Link

Kelley CP, Mohtadi S, Cane MA, Seager R, Kushnir Y. 2015. Climate change in  the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 112(11):3241-6. Link

Kimura K. 1984. Studies on growth and development in Japan. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 27: 179-214. Link

Lumey LH, Khalangot MD, Vaiserman AM. 2015. Association between type 2 diabetes and prenatal exposure to the Ukraine famine of 1932–33: a retrospective cohort study. The lancet Diabetes & endocrinology.  1;3(10):787-94. Link

Painter RC, Roseboom TJ, Bleker OP. 2005. Prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine and disease in later life: an overview. Reproductive toxicology. 20(3):345-52. Link

One thought on “Links Between War & Famine: From the Chevauchée to Yemen, S. Sudan, Ukraine, and Syria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.