JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A scorching drought that has cut South Africa's key maize crop by a third is likely to continue into the southern hemisphere summer as an El Nino weather pattern strengthens, according to the latest forecast from the South African Weather Service.
The forecast, for the October to February summer period, said the "likelihood of extreme warmer temperatures over most of South Africa is high."
"The forecasting system indicates high probabilities of below-normal rainfall for the start of the summer season. This is expected to continue throughout summer with relatively small chances of above-normal rainfall for localized areas in early- to mid-summer," it said.
The current El Nino weather phenomenon is expected to peak between October and January and could turn into one of the strongest on record, experts have said. This could bring drier conditions to southern Africa, which is already suffering from drought.
Zimbabwe's government in July halved its economic growth forecast to 1.5 percent this year from 3.2 percent, blaming the drought-stricken agricultural sector.
Dry conditions at the start of this summer could delay planting of the staple maize crop throughout the region, with ripples through the wider economy as food prices climb and the agricultural sector shrinks.
The most traded December white maize contract in South Africa is currently fetching 3,244 rand a tonne, not far off its record peak of 3,450 rand scaled in July, according to Thomson Reuters' data.
South Africa's Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) will release its final estimate of the 2015 maize crop at 1330 GMT (09:30 EDT) on Tuesday.
An average estimate of five trading houses polled by Reuters pegged the crop at 9.76 million tonnes, slightly down from the 9.84 million tonnes the CEC predicted last month. That is down about a third from last year and the lowest since 2007.
Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Susan Fenton