A woman gathers maize grain she harvested in Epworth, on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe. Drought has halved the country’s maize production this year and aid agencies predict 1.5 million Zimbabweans will need food aid by March. Picture: AP

Standing in a hole, South African maize farmer Tom van Rooyen digs with a small pickaxe. “There is moisture 25cm down but nothing beyond that. If we get below average rains, it will be a disaster,” he says.

Poor rains are forecast for South Africa’s maize belt because of the El Niño weather pattern, expected to bring more drought to already-parched southern regions in Africa and potential flooding in the east.

This will add misery to the continent reeling from a collapse in commodity prices triggered by China’s slowing economic growth.

Aid agency Oxfam warned this week that 10 million people, mostly in Africa, face hunger because of droughts and unusual rainfall caused by a “super” El Niño.

El Niño is a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific that occurs every few years. The last “super” one occurred in 1997-1998.

While the weather phenomenon heralds drought in some areas and flooding in others, this one follows record temperatures linked to global warming. Drought cut the staple maize crop in South Africa by about a third this past season. It’s likely to continue into the southern hemisphere summer as El Niño strengthens. Thomson Reuters data show futures for the white maize contract used for human consumption hit record highs of over R3 000 a ton in July and are within striking distance of that.

Inflation in South Africa moderated to 4.6 percent in August from 5 percent in July, but the central bank has warned that drought remains a concern because of its impact on food prices.

Drought has also hit South Africa’s sugar crop, which the Cane Growers’ Association forecasts will fall to 14.9 million tons in the 2015-16 season from 17.7 million tons. The northern Limpopo region which accounts for a third of South Africa’s citrus crops – a R9 billion industry – is under water restrictions.

Drought in Zimbabwe has halved the maize harvest to 742 000 tons this year, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.

The government says drought is a major reason it cut the growth forecast to 1.5 percent from 3.2 percent. Aid agencies say 1.5 million Zimbabweans would need food aid by March.

The drought also reduced power generation at the Kariba hydro electricity plant, after water levels at the dam fell, forcing mines to reduce output in neighbouring Zambia.

In west Africa, a lack of rainfall across Ghana’s cocoa belt has raised fears of another poor crop.

In Ethiopia, 4.5 million people need food aid because of El Niño and long-term climate change.

However, the case in Kenya will differ, says Peter Ambenje, assistant director at its meteorological department. El Niño typically brings increased rains to Africa’s east.

“Enhanced rainfall will boost farming but farmers need to be aware of the prevalence of diseases due to high moisture levels that may cause post-harvest losses,” he said.

Van Rooyen expects a tough year, but remains stoic: “When they forecast a bad El Niño in the late 1990s, I still planted,” he said. “Then the rains came and I had a good crop that year.” – Reuters