Famines in Ethiopia

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Traditionally the Economy of Ethiopia was based on subsistence agriculture, with an aristocracy that consumed the surplus. Due to a number of causes, the peasants lacked incentives to either improve production or to store their excess harvest; as a result, they lived from harvest to harvest.

Despite the extensive modernization of Ethiopia in the last 120 years, as of 2016, about 80% of the population are peasants who still live from harvest to harvest, and are vulnerable to crop failures.[1]

Year Description
First half of 9th century Followed by epidemic
1535 Famine and epidemic in Tigray.

As described in the Futuh al-Habasha, this 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." (Paul Lester Stenhouse translator, The Conquest of Abyssinia [Hollywood: Tsehai, 2003], p. 367) Amongst the dead was the Imam's young son Ahmad al-Nagasi. (p. 373)

1540 Contemporary accounts describe this famine as "worse than that which occurred at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple" (Pankhurst).
1543 Pankhurst provides no details
1567–1570 Famine in Harar, combined with plague and Oromo expansion. Nur ibn Mujahid, Emir of Harrar died.

As J. Spencer Trimingham describes, "The Amir 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." (Islam in Ethiopia, p. 94)

1611 The heavy rains that fell this year and extreme cold caused extensive crop failures in the northern provinces.
This same year a plague called mentita also afflicted Ethiopia.
1623 Jesuit sources
1634-1635 Reports of locusts in Tigray 1633-1635.
An epidemic of kantara or fangul (cholera) also afflicted Dembiya, spreading into Tigray.
1650 Pankhurst supplies no details
1653 Epidemic of kabab
1678 Cost of grain inflated; this led to the death of many mules, horses, and donkeys.
1700 This may have been the famine that struck Shewa between the reigns of Negasi Krestos and Sebestyanos mentioned by Donald Levine (Wax and Gold, p. 32).
1702 Starving peasants appealed to Emperor Iyasus I, crying 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.
1747–1748 Famine attributed to locusts in Royal Chronicle.
There was also an epidemic of fever (gunfan), possibly influenza, in 1747.
1752 According to Pankhurst. A European visitor to Gondar, Remedius Prutky, is silent about this disaster.
1783 Famine called "my sickness" (həmame) in Royal Chronicle.
1789 According to Royal Chronicle, "there was a famine over all the provinces"

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." (Herbert Weld Blundell, The Royal chronicle of Abyssinia, 1769-1840 [Cambridge: University Press, 1922], p. 411)

1796 This famine was particularly serious at Gondar, and blamed on an infestation of locusts.
1797 From the Royal Chronicle
1800 Soldiers died on campaign due to famine.
1829 Famine in Shewa, followed by a cholera outbreak 1830-1.
1835 Rains failed, leading to famine and "great mortality" throughout Shewa.
1880–1881 Cattle plague (1879) spreads from Adal region, causing famine as far west as Begemder.
1888–1892 Rinderpest introduced from India kill approximately 90% of cattle (see 1890s African rinderpest epizootic).
Lack of rainfall 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 Harrar.
Conditions worsen with cholera outbreaks (1889–92), a typhus epidemic, and a major smallpox epidemic (1889–90).
Conditions forced the coronation of Menelik II to be a subdued event.
1913–1914 Famine in northern provinces Amhara tigray
c.1929 Famine amongst Amhara, which led to local revolt when tax collectors refused to reduce taxes accordingly.
1958 Famine in Tigray claimed 100,000 lives. (Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1974 [London: James Currey, 1991], p. 196.)
1966 Famine in Amhara affects a number of districts. (Bahru Zewde, p. 196.)
1973 Famine returns to Amhara, spreads through northern provinces; failure to adequately handle this crisis contributed to the fall of the Imperial government and led to Derg rule.
1984–1985 See 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia.

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Unless indicated otherwise, information is based on the following sources:

  • For the period before 1800, Richard R.K. Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia (London: Lalibela House, 1961), pp. 236f; information about related epidemics taken from Pankhurst Introduction, pp. 239f.
  • For the period from 1800 through 1935, Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press, 1968), pp. 216–222.

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