* Zambia, Angola cut GDP forecast because of drought
* Despite resource wealth, agriculture remain big employer
* Normal rains expected for 2013/14 season - famine network
By Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Shrikesh Laxmidas
JOHANNESBURG/LUANDA Oct 24 Spells of drought in southern African this year have hit agricultural output and hurt economic growth in countries such as Zambia and Angola, underscoring the lingering importance of farming to the resource-rich region's prosperity.
Cutting their 2013 economic growth estimates, both oil producing Angola and copper producer Zambia have cited drought as a reason for lowering the forecasts.
Zambia, Africa's largest copper producer, sees its economic growth for 2013 lower than the earlier forecast of above 7 percent after expanding 7.2 percent in 2012. The International Monetary Fund said in September Zambia's economic growth was projected at 6 percent in 2013.
Copper production has traditionally been the backbone of Zambia's economy but decades of state mismanagement of mines led to a fall in output. Lusaka privatised its copper and cobalt mines more than a decade ago to attract foreign investments.
Despite efforts to revamp the mining sector, agriculture remains crucial to the economy, making up 18.7 percent of the GDP compared with 11.1 percent for mining.
Erratic rain is now hurting production of crops such as maize, which sustains millions of poor Zambians and is an export commodity for the country.
"The southern part of the country had prolonged periods of no rain. In other areas rain was erratic and this had a negative impact on our maize production," Agriculture Minister Robert Sichinga said.
Reduced harvests can also stoke inflation, especially for foodstuffs, which hits poor households the hardest.
"WORST DROUGHT IN DECADES"
Angola and Namibia are having "one of the worst droughts in 30 years", according to UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency.
"Livestock and crops have perished and many households are selling assets and skipping meals," UNICEF said.
Angola, Africa's second-biggest oil producer, cut its GDP growth forecast for this year to 5.1 percent from a previous estimate 7.1 percent. Just like Zambia, Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos said last week "a long drought" was partly to blame for the weaker growth forecast.
Cunene, the southern province of Angola, is the hardest hit. Its governor said in May it had not had rain for two years. The semi-arid province, which shares a border with Namibia, depends largely on subsistence farming and cattle-raising.
Before independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola was largely self-sufficient in food and was the world's fourth largest coffee exporter.
A 27-year civil war that ended in 2002 left the sector in tatters and agriculture and fishing now makes up around 10 percent of Angola's GDP, compared to 45 percent for oil. However, it still employs two out of three Angolans, according to the World Bank.
Industry associations have said Angola was allocating insufficient funds to boosting farming after only 1 percent of this year's total public spending was earmarked for agriculture.
Rainfall patterns in southern Africa are becoming erratic as climate change takes its toll, threatening production of staple and cash crops in the region.
Farmers, who for centuries have known when to expect rains, are now finding planning difficult as the region experiences a mixture of early, late and above normal rains.
Climate experts have said as weather patterns change, the outlook for rain-fed agriculture was particularly bleak in southern Africa's Limpopo river basin, which covers parts of Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
South Africa last month declared a drought in its North West Province, an important maize growing region in Africa's biggest producer of the crop.
But the short-term outlook is hopeful.
According to FEWS NET, a USAID-funded famine network, southern Africa is expected to get normal to above normal rain from October to March next year, which should bring relief to some if not most of the drought-striken areas.
Zimbabwe, which faces its worst food shortages in four years after a drought, was gearing up for the new growing season but lack of farm inputs may hamper production.
"We are going to struggle in terms of crop production and the economy will continue to be in dire straits," Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers Union president Charles Tuffs told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Chris Mfula in Lusaka and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Writing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Alison Williams)