Drought threatens Southern African corn crop prospects

Drought threatens Southern African corn crop prospects

With harvests likely hit by abnormally low rainfall and high temperatures, there are fears for food security throughout southern Africa.

Crop and livestock production prospects in Southern Africa are threatened by the El Niño weather phenomenon that has reduced rainfall and increased temperatures, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The situation will likely be exacerbated as last year's season was also disappointing and food prices have risen as a result. A special alert released last week by FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) warned the combined effects “could acutely impact the food security situation in 2016.”

Corn planting has already been delayed by the drought conditions, and those crops that have been sown are struggling to establish with inadequate rains and high temperatures.

Farmers in the region are almost entirely dependent on rain, so harvests are highly susceptible to its variations.

El Niño's impacts vary by location and season but previous strong episodes have been associated with reduced production in several countries, including South Africa, which is the largest cereal producer in the sub-region and typically exports corn to neighboring countries.

“Weather forecasts indicate a higher probability of a continuation of below-normal rains between December and March across most countries,” according to the GIEWS alert.

South Africa has already declared drought status for five provinces, its main cereal-producing regions, while Lesotho has issued a drought mitigation plan, and Swaziland has implemented water restrictions as reservoir levels have become low.

According to the latest Grain Market Report from the International Grains Council (IGC), the forecast for global total grains (wheat and coarse grains) production in 2015-16 has been cut by 3 million metric tons (mmt) to 1,996 mmt or about 2 percent below last season’s record. Main cause of this reduction is the effect on the corn crops of the drought conditions in Ethiopia, South Africa and China.

For South Africa, IGC estimates the 2014-15 corn crop at 15.0 mmt, but the following year – ending in April 2016 – at just 10.6 mmt. Exports for the current season are forecast at 0.6 mmt – around one-third of recent annual exported volumes.