Famine in Gaza

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Global leaders have yet to issue a formal declaration of famine in Gaza, despite evidence that Palestinians in the North Gaza and Gaza Governorates are suffering from famine today. The nature of food insecurity across the entire Gaza Strip is unprecedented this century. What is at stake by failing to issue a formal declaration of famine? Beyond ceasing hostilities and restoring humanitarian access, what else is needed to halt famine and prevent further suffering in the Gaza Strip?

Q1: Is Gaza in famine?

A1: Yes.

Evidence of Gaza’s “catastrophic living conditions,” as described by the International Court of Justice on March 28, is abundant. Humanitarian access is severely restricted, leading to malnutrition, starvation, and, in some cases, death. According to Gazan authorities, Palestinians in Gaza have also died in the delivery of humanitarian assistance: more than 100 Palestinians were killed at an aid convoy near Gaza City on February 29, five Palestinians were killed by a malfunctioned airdrop of humanitarian assistance on March 8, and 12 Palestinians drowned while trying to reach aid dropped into the Mediterranean Sea on March 25. Some Gazans who received humanitarian assistance are using it cautiously, combining flour with animal feed to make bread. Meals for some Palestinians in Gaza, including children, consist of animal feed alone. Many are regularly consuming a wild plant to stave off hunger.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) was developed in 2004 to classify the characteristics of the food and nutrition crisis in Somalia and is used around the world today to assess crises and inform responses. The most severe level on its five-phase classification scale, IPC 5, is separated into two distinct but related classifications: Catastrophe and Famine. Households are determined to experience catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity when there is an extreme lack of food and critical acute malnutrition is present. Famine is more narrowly defined as existing in an area when three separate criteria are met: at least 20 percent of households face acute food insecurity or an extreme lack of food, 30 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition, and two adults (or four children) die per day due to starvation or the interaction of malnutrition and disease.

In its assessment published on March 18, 2024, the IPC concludes that each of the three famine thresholds have been passed or are likely to be passed imminently in the North Gaza and Gaza Governorates of the Gaza Strip: the famine threshold for acute food insecurity has already been far exceeded, it is highly likely that the famine threshold for acute malnutrition has also been passed, and the famine threshold for mortality is expected to accelerate and to be exceeded imminently. For these reasons, the IPC concluded, “Famine is projected to unfold anytime between now and May 2024.” The entire population of the Gaza Strip, also including the Deir al Balah, Khan Younis, and Rafah Governorates, is facing high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC 3 or above).

Q2: Why haven’t world leaders declared famine in Gaza?

A2: Based on all data and information available through March 10, 2024, the IPC projected that the North Gaza and Gaza Governorates—representing half the population of Gaza—would be classified in IPC 5 (Famine) as early as March 16, 2024, unless hostilities immediately ceased and humanitarian access was fully restored. Intense conflict has persisted and access to essential supplies and services has remained restricted, and the populations of the North Gaza and Gaza Governorates have suffered from famine since this time.

Nonetheless, most leaders’ and policymakers’ statements have remained circumspect. On March 29, 2024, a State Department official told Reuters that famine “quite possibly is present in at least some areas” of northern Gaza. On April 4, 2024, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that the entire population of Gaza “knows acute levels of food insecurity.” On April 5, 2024, the director of coordination with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that “Gaza is teetering on the edge of famine, if it hasn’t already fallen into it.” In an April 8 opinion essay, the leaders of Jordan, France, and Egypt described “catastrophic humanitarian suffering” and wrote that “famine is already setting in” in Gaza. On April 10, 2024, USAID administrator Samantha Power was the first senior U.S. official to affirmatively acknowledge famine in Gaza: Administrator Power responded “yes” to the question “So famine is already occurring [in Gaza]?” posed during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that day. Administrator Power’s statement does not, however, represent a formal declaration of famine, which in the past have been issued by the United Nations and, for the United States, reiterated by the Department of State.

Authorities have declared famine to have occurred in only two instances since 2010: in parts of Somalia in 2011 and in parts of South Sudan in 2017. In the case of Somalia, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) and other organizations issued a warning that famine could occur in the coming months on March 15, 2011. On July 20, 2011, the United Nations formally declared famine in two regions of Somalia, and the U.S. Department of State issued a statement that same day. In the case of South Sudan, the IPC conducted an assessment in January 2017, the United Nations formally declared famine in one region of South Sudan in February 2017, and the U.S. Department of State issued a statement the following day. The South Sudan famine declaration was based on a retrospective assessment, while the Somalia famine declaration was based on a long-term projection and subsequent monitoring. There is, therefore, precedent for famine to be declared based on IPC projections and observations of conditions on the ground.

In March 2024, the IPC reiterated that the IPC itself does not declare when a famine is occurring, but rather “facilitates the analysis that allows governments, international/regional organizations and humanitarian agencies” themselves to issue “prominent statements or declarations.” Nonetheless, global leaders may be leaning on the IPC’s assessments to buttress their own declarations. Whether global leaders will issue a formal declaration of famine in Gaza today, based on IPC projections and on-the-ground realities, remains to be seen.

Q3: What is the risk of delaying a formal famine declaration?

A3: Declarations of famine are rare and extreme occurrences. Today, leaders are likely “waiting for a retrospective famine classification” before issuing a formal declaration of famine, as suggested by UN OCHA’s coordination director on April 5. IPC assessments are both backward looking, assessing conditions that have been in place for several weeks or months, and forward looking, projecting conditions that are likely to occur in the coming weeks and months. In the case of Gaza, despite evidence that famine is present today, leaders may be waiting for a future IPC assessment, presumably concluding that famine conditions have been in place for a period of time, before making an official declaration of famine.

Famine declarations convey significant political and emotional weight and the expectation of action from the international community. A formal declaration of famine in Gaza could impel countries and aid agencies to surge assistance to the region and to take new steps to urge Israel to provide full access for humanitarian actors. Such steps could prevent deaths and reduce suffering in Gaza. Delaying a formal famine declaration, therefore, could delay lifesaving assistance, resulting in further malnutrition, destitution, starvation, and death.

Q4: What is exceptional about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

A4: The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unprecedented for the proportion and absolute number of its population experiencing acute food insecurity and famine, the speed of the onset of the crisis, and its cause.

Today, Gaza’s entire population, about 2.2 million people, is classified in IPC 3 (Crisis), IPC 4 (Emergency), or IPC 5 (Catastrophe/Famine). This represents, according to IPC, “the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area or country.” As early as December 2023, according to the IPC, data showed that nearly all households were skipping meals every day. People went entire days and nights without eating in four out of five households in the northern governorates and among displaced populations in the southern governorates.

The crisis in Gaza is also exceptional for the number of people in IPC 5 levels of food insecurity. From February 15 to March 15, the IPC classified 677,000 people in IPC 5, and from March 16 to July 15, 2024, the IPC projects 1,107,000 people, a full half of the Gazan population, to be in IPC 5 (Catastrophe/Famine). At the time of declaration of famine in Somalia in 2011, approximately 490,000 people were classified in IPC 5, while 80,000 people were classified in IPC 5 when famine was declared in South Sudan.

Gaza is also remarkable for the speed of onset of the humanitarian crisis. Following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, in which Hamas fighters killed 1,200 Israelis, most of them civilians, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege,” allowing “no electricity, no food, no fuel” to enter the Gaza Strip. While there was widespread food insecurity across Palestinian communities, particularly in Gaza, prior to the Hamas attack and Israel’s siege, the recent acceleration in hunger has been unprecedented this century. Within six months of the October 7 attack, food insecurity surged to IPC 3 (Crisis), IPC 4 (Emergency), and IPC 5 (Famine) levels of food insecurity for all of Gaza’s 2.23 million residents. By comparison, famine in Somalia in 2011 was the result of months, even years, of conflict, drought, and failed rains; and famine in South Sudan in 2017 happened after three years of civil war, coupled with an ailing economy and high food prices.

Finally, the crisis in Gaza is exceptional for its entirely man-made cause: conflict between Israel and Hamas, including Israel’s siege of Gaza, and restricted humanitarian access across the Gaza Strip. The causes of famine in Somalia and South Sudan included conflict as well as economic and environmental shocks. Today’s famine in Gaza represents the first instance of an entirely man-made famine this century.

Q5: Can famine be halted?

A5: In its latest assessment, the IPC recommends steps necessary to halt famine and describes the key drivers of the famine as hostilities and restricted humanitarian access. Intense and sustained conflict has resulted in over 32,000 deaths, displaced more than 85 percent of the population, and damaged or destroyed over half the buildings in the Gaza Strip. Extreme limitations on humanitarian access impede the delivery of life-saving goods and basic services.

According to IPC, halting famine requires four types of responses: (1) restoring humanitarian access to the entire Gaza Strip, including by allowing necessities to enter and move through Gaza by road; (2) providing life-saving humanitarian assistance by restoring health, nutrition, and water and sanitation services, and providing safe, nutritious, and sufficient food to the entire population; (3) delivering malnutrition treatment, including formula, foods, and micronutrient supplements to infants, children, pregnant and lactating women, the ill, and the elderly; and (4) restoring commercial production systems, including market infrastructure.

Whether these conditions will be met expeditiously is unclear. On April 8, the State Department described “initial positive steps” following President Biden’s April 4 call with Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he conditioned U.S. military support for Israel on Israel’s protection of aid workers and civilians. According to the State Department, the Israeli cabinet has since agreed to open a new northern crossing, perhaps operational within a week, to deliver aid into northern Gaza; the cabinet approved the temporary use of the Ashdod port in southern Israel for the delivery of humanitarian aid; a streamlined process for truck convoys moving from Jordan through Israel to Gaza has been implemented; and the Israel Defense Forces announced a coordination unit for deconfliction to prevent the targeting and death of humanitarian workers in the Gaza Strip. Since October 2023, more than 200 humanitarian workers have been killed in Gaza.

Nonetheless, prospects for a cessation in conflict remain grim, as talks of ceasefire between Israel and Hamas are stalling. Though Israel withdrew troops from southern Gaza in early April, Prime Minister Netanyahu maintains plans to invade Rafah, stating in early April, “We will complete the elimination of Hamas's battalions, including in Rafah. No force in the world will stop us.” Though Israel has pledged to take steps to facilitate the entry of aid into Gaza and to avoid targeting and killing aid workers, some aid agencies continue to curtail activities in Gaza following Israel’s April 1, 2024, attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid workers despite WCK having coordinated its movements with the Israel Defense Forces. Whether the steps recently announced will result in more aid reaching Palestinians in Gaza, and by how much aid will increase, is yet unclear.

Q6: Beyond a cessation in hostilities and full restoration of humanitarian access, what else is needed?

A6: The IPC and international aid agencies rightly emphasize the importance of life-saving humanitarian assistance, including essential goods and services, to address the immediate humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Beyond emergency assistance, the IPC indicates the importance of restoring commercial and production systems, including market infrastructure, bakeries, and other aspects of food production systems for horticulture, livestock, and fisheries.

According to IPC, more than 40 percent of all croplands in Gaza have been damaged since October 7, 2023, in addition to widespread damage to agricultural infrastructure and assets, including food warehouses, farms, barns, and wells. Of particular concern to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) is the death of livestock in Gaza, with about 70 percent of all livestock and other animals lost since October 7. Once humanitarian access is improved, the UN FAO is prepared to provide emergency assistance in the form of agricultural supplies, prioritizing the delivery of 1,500 metric tons of animal feed, in addition to water tanks, veterinary kits, and fuel. Emergency agricultural assistance can prevent and treat malnutrition and acute food insecurity—the UN FAO’s planned delivery of animal feed, for example, could provide milk for all children under the age of 10 in the Gaza Strip—and support livelihoods for those employed in agriculture and food systems.

Equally important to improving food security is restoring water system infrastructure and improving water security for all Palestinians in Gaza. Clean, safe water is essential for food production, preparation, and consumption, and to avoid the transmission of communicable diseases that lead to and exacerbate malnutrition, particularly in children. Water production and distribution is, as the IPC notes, a fuel-intensive process, so increasing access to fuel is essential for the functioning of Gaza’s water systems, in addition to its food production, distribution, and storage systems. Humanitarian catastrophes that manifest in acute food insecurity require not only food assistance, but also support for water and energy systems—that is, immediate and sustained support across food systems in their entirety.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Anita Kirschenbaum is a program manager for the CSIS Global Food and Water Security Program. Zane Swanson is a fellow with the CSIS Global Food and Water Security Program.

Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program
Jon B. Alterman
Fellow, Global Food and Water Security Program