Much-needed rain forecast for South Africa, but too late for summer maize

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Most parts of South Africa are forecast to receive above average rainfall in the autumn season from April, the national weather service said on Thursday, too late to benefit the drought-seared summer maize crop.

Lake St Lucia is almost completely dry due to drought conditions in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, northeast of Durban, South Africa February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

South Africa experienced its driest year on record in 2015 and record temperatures in January this year as an El Nino weather pattern triggered drought and heatwaves, threatening the staple maize crop among others.

In its rolling monthly forecast, which looks five months ahead, the South African Weather Service said that most models are confidently showing a gradual decay of El Nino.

“The forecasting system favors a tendency of above-normal rainfall for the late autumn over most parts of South Africa,” it said.

The weather service said that there are “enhanced chances” for above-normal rainfall for the southern hemisphere winter months of June through August in most of the country apart from the central region.

It also noted that the forecast showed “a huge disparity in the rainfall and temperature forecast for the coming seasons”, so some regions are likely to be much wetter than others.

Higher than normal rainfall could bring much-needed relief to parched pasture lands and dam levels, which the water minister has said could take more than three years to recover to pre-drought levels.

But analysts said it was too little, too late for the summer maize crop and said prospects for winter wheat remain uncertain.

“For the summer maize crop we need the rain immediately as it is now in the pollination stages. April is too late for the summer crops,” said Wandile Sihlobo, economist at Grain SA, South Africa’s largest grain producer group.

“And for the winter crop, the forecast is not clear,” he added.

The Crop Estimates Committee (CEC), which will provide its third production forecast for the 2016 crop next Wednesday, is expected to peg the harvest at 6.77 million tonnes, a Reuters poll of analysts and traders showed.

That would be down almost 7 percent from last month’s estimate of 7.255 million tonnes and 32 percent less than last year’s harvest.

Maize is South Africa’s staple food and the price of the white variety, used for human consumption, doubled last year, stoking inflation that accelerated to 7 percent in February, its highest in seven years, from 6.2 percent in January.

Editing by David Goodman