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The World’s Worst Natural Disasters in History – Drought, Famine and Diseases

Updated on October 22, 2016

Natural disaster is defined by as “any event or force of nature that has catastrophic consequences, such as avalanche, earthquake, flood, forest fire, hurricane, lightning, tornado, tsunami, and volcanic eruption.”

Collins Dictionary also defines it as “a natural event which causes a lot of damage and kills a lot of people.”

As such, the world has never been spared of natural calamities that have not only claimed thousands to millions of lives; they have also caused extensive destruction of properties.

In recent times, natural disasters have been occurring at a high rate especially drought and famine. Human activities have been blamed for contributing in the high occurrence of natural disasters.

This article lists the world’s worst natural disasters of all time in regards to drought and famine. It will be noted it is hard to term some natural disasters worse than others as it depends on several criteria. Some will label natural disasters in terms of lives claimed or killed while others the magnitude of damage to property or the cost of rebuilding. In cases like earthquake, it will depend on the magnitude of the earthquake.

Definition of Famine and Drought

Famine can be defined as “extreme and general scarcity of food, as in a country or a large geographical area,” or “any extreme and general scarcity,” or “extreme hunger; starvation,” according to

On the other hand, Drought is defined as “a period of dry weather, especially a long one that is injurious to crops,” or “an extended shortage,” or “thirst.”

The Black Death

Also known as ‘The Black Plague’ or ‘The Bubonic Plague,’ this plague was the worst epidemic ever to hit the European region and parts of the world.

The epidemic which swept through Europe from 1348 to 1351 killed an estimated of between 25-60% of Europeans. There are reports that put the percentage at 33% while some go as far as to estimate two-thirds of the population died from the plague epidemic. In figures, it would translate from between 75 to 200 million people.

It is believed the plague started in China in the year 1346 spreading throughout Asia, Syria, Persia, Egypt, India, finally reaching Europe.

The black plague or bubonic plague is a bacterial infection caused by bacteria called Yersina Pestis. This bacteria found in animals is transmitted to humans through flies.

In overcrowded areas and areas with poor sanitation coupled with a large population of rodents, the risk of the plague is very high.

The bubonic plague infects the immune system causing soreness. If it is not treated early it can move to the blood or lungs causing septicemic and pneumonic plague.

It is spread when fleas which had fed on infected animals bite a person. Also, it is spread when one comes to direct contact with an infected animal/person, or when he/she eats an infected animal.

The symptoms of bubonic plague appear after two to seven days. The symptoms are: muscle pain, fever, chills, headache, fatigue, swollen lymph glands appearing in groin, armpits, site of bite and neck.

Bengal famine of 1943
Bengal famine of 1943 | Source

The Great Potato Famine

Also known as the Irish famine, over one million people died of starvation in Ireland. This famine took place in the late 1840s.

Not only did the people die of starvation, epidemic diseases also contributed to the high rate of deaths.

It is reputed this famine was not a natural disaster but an artificial famine. However, British Broadcasting Network (BBC) is quick to note this is not the case.

BBC notes, “The Great Famine in Ireland began as a natural catastrophe of extraordinary magnitude, but its effects were severely worsened by the actions and inactions of the Whig government, headed by Lord John Rusell in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852.”

It is further noted, “This was not an artificial famine as traditional Irish nationalist interpretation has long maintained – not at any rate at the start. The original gross deficiency of food was real. In 1846 and successive years blight destroyed the crop that had previously provided approximately 60 per cent of the nation’s food needs. Potatoes were the main crop in the country, therefore when potato blight, a fungus, struck the crop it became the start of famine.

It is important to know the grains and livestock that were raised in Ireland were owned by the English. The laws of the time did not allow Irish people to import grain for consumption. Therefore, about 1.5 million people were killed as a result of the plant disease combined with politics, the reason why the English are blamed for worsening the severity of the famine.

China Drought Famine

This drought famine was entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the deadliest drought in the history of the world.

The worst famine, it was caused by drought. It took place in five provinces in Northern China, killing between 9-13 million people. In some regions as close as ninety percent of the population died. The number of deaths was made worse by diseases and violence.

The famine, the worst natural disaster in the world resulted from thin rainfall running for three consecutive years. This lack of enough or meager rainfall resulted to crop failure which, “…led to a desparate search for food. The eating of grass and roots mixed with ground clay resulted in sickness and usually hastened death…” (Kirkwood)

The winter season made the conditions worse as it led to contracting of diseases such as dysentry, fever, typhoid and typhus.

“Millions attempted to migrate to neighboring provinces hoping to escape death,” notes Kirkwood. “Some residents resorted to pillage and banditry for food. In certain areas, hundreds huddled together for warmth in huge underground pits. Corpses, too numerous for individual burial, were piled by thousands into mass graves.”

It was a hard-trying time as parents killed their own children for food while others committed suicide to escape the hunger. Cannibalism became the norm during this period. Women and children were sold as slavery or forced into prostitution in order to obtain food.

“In some areas, local merchants openly sold human flesh at the market…” (Kirkwood)

The Influenza Pandemic

The worst epidemic in history, the flu pandemic killed more people than World War I. The influenza pandemic which occurred during the 1918-1919 period killed an estimated 20-40 million people worldwide. Some reports put it at between 35 to 75 million.

As opposed to Bubonic Plague that ran for four years, the influenza killed millions of people in a very short time.

As always Influenza appears as benign. This was not the case. It appeared as benign. As a common cold. However, it materialized more than a cold. “In the two years that this scourge ravaged the earth, a fifth of the world’s population was infected,” states Stanford University.

Influenza or flu, an infectious disease that normally kills young children and the elderly at a high rate than in any other age group took an unprecedented turn. The most infected during this time were young and middle-aged people (20-40 years), though young children and the elderly were at risk of contracting the disease.

This infectious disease,”…infected 28% of all Americans. An estimated 675,000 Americans died of Influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of then fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy.” (Stanford)

This disease swept not only in Europe but also to North America, Africa, South Pacific, and Asia.

Famine | Source

Somalia Famine

Somalia is a country that has experienced lawlessness for over twenty years. More than that, it is a country that has been hit by drought and famine, left to right.

From the year 2010 to 2012, the country experienced famine which claimed close to 260,000 lives. Half of those who died as a result of the famine were children under the age of five years.

The famine caused by a severe drought was made worse due to the continuous conflict that has torn the country into dehuman conditions.

This famine was termed as worse compared to 1992 famine which killed about 220,000 people.

Lack of preparedness also has been blamed for if the humanitarian community had been ready to take an early action it would have avoided many deaths at this magnitude.

The famine began in Lower Shabelle and Southern Bakool regions in Somalia. These regions were controlled by al-shabab, an Islamist group allied to al-Qaeda. This Islamist group denied there was any famine thereby banning aid from western agencies from operating in these two regions which were under their control.

It is estimated 4.6% of the total population in Somalia and 10% of children under the age of five died as a result of the famine.

The Ethiopian Famine Video That Shocked The World

Famine | Source


In conclusion, many lives can be saved if the international community and respective governments come up with ways to offer relief or aid at an early point. It has been cited aid normally arrives late when a number of people have already died from hunger or starvation.

However, in other circumstances it is hard to offer aid in real time due to conflicts that ravage a particular country, for example, the situation in Somalia.

There are disasters which can be termed as natural but looking closely it is evident they are man-made. They result from man’s actions such as pollution or selfish actions.

In reality, a lot of lives are lost due to human beings actions though some may not want to agree to it. Nowadays, we cannot blame everything to Mother Nature for we have helped her in increasing the rate of natural disasters particularly drought and famine.


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      3 years ago from Bangladesh

      Yes, you are right. "Many lives can be saved if the international community and respective governments come up with ways to offer relief or aid at an early point." But sometimes it is very difficult to reach the exact point due to the transportation system broke down after disaster, religious cause, national security cause etc. Local government also responsible for this. If all the people or organization take the best steps to protect or prevent and cure after disaster then it will be possible to help those affected people.


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