Famines in Ethiopia

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Famines in Ethiopia have occurred periodically throughout the history of the country.

The economy was based on subsistence agriculture, with an aristocracy that consumed the surplus. Due to a number of causes, the peasants have lacked incentives to either improve production or to store their excess crops; as a result, they lived from harvest to harvest. Despite the extensive modernization and land reform in the country during the last 120 years, especially under Emperor Haile Selassie, as of 2016, about 80% of the population are poor farmers who still live from harvest to harvest and are vulnerable to crop failures.[1]

List of famines[edit]

Year Main region affected Description
First half of 9th century Followed by epidemic.[2]
1272 Harar Massive loss of life including Makhzumi dynasty's aristocrats.[3]
1535 Tigray (famine and epidemic) As described in the Futuh al-Habasha, this famine took a heavy toll on Imam Ahmad Gragn's army: "When they entered Tigray each Muslim had fifty mules; some of them even one-hundred. When they left, each one of them had only one or two mules."[4]: 367  Amongst the dead was the Imam's young son Ahmad al-Nagasi.[4]: 373 
1540 Contemporary accounts, collected by Richard Pankhurst, describe this famine as "worse than that which occurred at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple."[2]
1543 Pankhurst provides no details.[5]
1567–1570 Harar The famine was accompanied with plague and Oromo expansion.

It saw the death of Nur ibn Mujahid, Emir of Harar, by typhus: as J. Spencer Trimingham describes, Emir Nur "exerted every effort to help his people to recover, but after every respite the Oromo would again descend like locusts and scourge the country, and Nur himself died (975/1567–8) of the pestilence which spread during the famine."[6]

1611 The heavy rains that fell this year and extreme cold caused extensive crop failures in the northern provinces.

Occurring under the reign of Emperor Susenyos I, the plague was referred to as manan tita (literally 'whom did it leave?'). Many people died, particularly in the province of Dembiya.[7]: 52–3 [8]

1625–c. 1627 Accounted by both Ethiopians and Portuguese Jesuits—including Jerome Lobo, Afonso Mendes, Gaspar Pais, Thomas Barneto, and Manoel de Almeida—this famine lasted for several years and was said to have been caused by unusually large swarms of locusts. The Jesuits also took this opportunity to convert famine victims to Catholicism.[7]: 54–62 
1634–35 Tigray This famine fell under the reign of Emperor Fasilides, as accounted by Ethiopian Emperor Zara Yaqob and philosopher Walda Heywet (supposedly) and by Jesuits Manoel de Almeida and Diego de Mattos.

It is said that an epidemic of kantara or fangul (cholera) afflicted Dembiya, which then spread into Tigray.[7]: 63 

1650 Pankhurst provides no details[5]
1653 Epidemic of kabab.[5]
1678 Cost of grain inflated; this led to the death of many mules, horses, and donkeys.[citation needed]
1700 This may have been the famine that struck Shewa between the reigns of Negasi Krestos and Sebastyanos, as mentioned by Donald N. Levine.[9]: 32 
1702 Starving peasants were said to have appealed to Emperor Iyasu I at Gondar, insisting that if he did not feed them, they would die. In response, the Emperor and his nobles fed an uncountable number of the destitute for two months.[10] The Emperor reportedly extended his charity to all those in need, whether they be a Jew, "disloyal or a murderer."[11]
1747–48 This famine is attributed to locusts.[12] There was also an epidemic of fever (gunfan), possibly influenza, in 1747.
1752 According to Pankhurst.[5] A European visitor to Gondar, Remedius Prutky, is silent about this disaster.
1783 This famine is referred to as həmame ('my sickness') in The Royal Chronicle of Abyssinia.[12]
1789 According to Herbert Weld Blundell, "there was a famine over all the provinces."[12]

Dejazmach Hailu Eshte, who was then living in Este, settled many "needy people" in his villages as guards. "And hearing of this report... many commanders who acted as he did adopted his example for themselves."[12]: 411 

1796 This famine was particularly serious in Gondar, and blamed on an infestation of locusts.[5]
1797 From the Royal Chronicle[12]
1800 Soldiers died on campaign due to famine.[5]
1829 Shewa This famine was followed by a cholera outbreak in 1830–31. Sengwer folklore has it that, the land "became dry and there was great hunger. The Siger went away to the east to Moru Eris, where most of them died of heat and starvation."[13]
1835 Shewa Rains failed, leading to famine and "great mortality".[14]
1880–81 A cattle plague in 1879 spread from the Adal region, causing famine as far west as Begemder.[citation needed]
1888–92 The African rinderpest epizootic of the 1890s, introduced from Indian cattle brought by the Italians for their campaign against Somalia, killed approximately 90% of cattle.
Lack of rainfall from as early as 16 November 1888 led to famine in all but southernmost provinces; locusts and caterpillar infestations destroy crops in Akele Guzay, Begemder, Shewa, and around Harar. Conditions worsened with a typhus epidemic, a major smallpox epidemic (1889–90), and cholera outbreaks (1889–92), forcing the coronation of Menelik II to be a subdued event.[15]
1913–14 Price of grain increased 30-fold.[16]
1929 [17]
1958 Tigray Over 100,000 people in the province died of the famine.[18][19][20]: 26–7 
1966 Wollo Famine broke out in Wollo.[18]
1973 Wollo c. 200,000 people died.[21] This famine spread throughout northern provinces. Failure to adequately handle this crisis contributed to the fall of the Imperial government and the rise of Derg rule.
1984–85 Tigray and Wollo The 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia had a death toll of 1.2 million, leaving "400,000 refugees outside the country, 2.5 million people internally displaced, and almost 200,000 orphans."[20]: 44 [22] The majority of the dead were from Tigray and other parts of northern Ethiopia.[23]
2003 A severe drought affected 13.2 million people in 2002/2003. Program data showed that thousands of adults and children died despite the large scale humanitarian response.[24] However, despite the drought being the most extensive in the country's modern history, there was a higher child mortality in drought-affected areas but no measurable increase in child mortality amongst the general population. Household-level demographic factors, household-level food and livelihood security, community-level economic production, access to potable water, and household receipt of food aid were predictive of child survival. The latter had a small but significant positive association with child survival.[24]
2021–2022 Tigray During the Tigray War, the Ethiopian federal government blocked food and humanitarian aid from entering the region as a weaponization of hunger. This led to a famine that the Ethiopian Parliament classified, as of January 2021, as a crisis (phase 3)/emergency (phase 4) acute food insecurity situation in most of Tigray except for Western Tigray by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) under the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ethiopia's drought: On the edge of disaster: The government's achievements appear increasingly precarious". The Economist. 27 Feb 2016. Retrieved 15 March 2016.
  2. ^ a b Pankhurst, Richard R. K. 1961. An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia. London: Lalibela House.
  3. ^ Yohannes, Gebre Selassie. Plague as a Possible Factor for the Decline and Collapse of the Aksumite Empire: a New Interpretation (PDF). Mekelle University. p. 50.
  4. ^ a b Stenhouse, Paul Lester, trans. 2003. The Conquest of Abyssinia. Hollywood: TSEHAI Publishers.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Pankhurst, Richard. 1966. "The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-1892: A New Assessment." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 21(2):95–124. JSTOR 24621531. p. 96.
    "The country's royal chronicles and other historical sources, which enable us to date events in Ethiopia much more precisely than in most other parts of Africa reveal that no fewer than twenty-three major famines occurred in the two centuries or so from 1540 to 1800, namely in 1540, 1543, 1567, 1611, 1623, 1625, 1633, 1634, 1635, 1636, 1650, 1653, 1678, 1700, 1702, 1747, 1748, 1752, 1783, 1789, 1796, 1797, and 1800."
  6. ^ Trimingham, J. Spencer. 1952. Islam in Ethiopia. London: Oxford University Press. p. 94.
  7. ^ a b c Pankhurst, Richard. 1972. "The History of Famine and Pestilence in Ethiopia Prior to the Founding of Gondär." Journal of Ethiopian Studies 10(2):37–64. JSTOR 41965857.
  8. ^ Pereira, F. M. Esteves. 1900. Chronica de Susenyos, rei de Ethiopia. Lisboa.
  9. ^ Levine, Donald N. 1965. Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226475638.
  10. ^ Pankhurst, Richard. 1966. "The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-1892: A New Assessment." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 21(2):95–124. JSTOR 24621531. p. 97.
  11. ^ Guidi, I. 1905. Annales, Iohannis I, Iyasu I et Bakaffa. Louvain. p. 231.
  12. ^ a b c d e Weld-Blundell, Herbert. 1922. The Royal Chronicle of Abyssinia, 1769-1840. Cambridge: The University Press.
  13. ^ Lamphear, John. 1988. "The People of the Grey Bull: The Origin and Expansion of the Turkana." The Journal of African History 29(1):32–33. doi:10.1017/S0021853700035970. JSTOR 182237.
  14. ^ Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press), p. 217
  15. ^ Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia, pp. 217-220
  16. ^ Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia, p. 220
  17. ^ Pankhurst, Richard. 1968. Economic History of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press. pp. 216–22.
  18. ^ a b Zewde, Bahru. 1991, A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855–1974. London: James Currey. p. 196.
  19. ^ Mesfin Wolde Mariam, "Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia: 1958-77". ISBN 0946688036.
  20. ^ a b Gill, Peter. 2010. Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 2018-05-16.
  21. ^ "Ethiopia profile - Timeline". BBC News. 12 October 2020.
  22. ^ Giorgis, Dawit Wolde (1989). Dawit Wolde Giorgis, "Red Tears: War, Famine, and Revolution in Ethiopia". ISBN 0932415342.
  23. ^ Waal, Alexander De (1991). Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-56432-038-4.
  24. ^ a b "Child survival during the 2002–2003 drought in Ethiopia".
  25. ^ "Continued conflict in Tigray coupled with low economic activity drives Emergency (IPC Phase 4)". Famine Early Warning Systems Network. 2021-02-10. Archived from the original on 2021-02-10. Retrieved 2021-02-10.

External links[edit]