Crop and livestock production prospects in Southern Africa have been weakened by the El Niño weather phenomenon that has lowered rains and increased temperatures.
A reduced agricultural output would follow on last year's disappointing season, which has already contributed to higher food prices and "could acutely impact the food security situation in 2016," according to a special alert released on Tuesday by FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS).
The season for planting maize in Southern Africa has already experienced delays, while crops sown stand to be negatively affected due to inadequate rains and higher temperatures.
"It's the sixth week of the cropping season now and there's not enough moisture in the soil," said Shukri Ahmed, FAO Deputy Strategic Programme Leader - Resilience.
The region's small-scale farmers are almost entirely dependent on rain, rendering their output highly susceptible to its variations.
While El Niño's impact depends highly on location and season - the impact of El Niño on agricultural production appears more muted in northern areas - past 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 maize to neighbouring countries.
FAO had already warned in March that the current El Niño would be strong - and it now appears to be the strongest episode in 18 years. It will peak at the start of 2016, before the usual harvest time for farmers in Southern Africa.
"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.
Increasing prices intensify risks
The likelihood of another poor season is troublesome as it comes on the heels of a poor one that has already depleted inventories, tightened supplies and pushed up local prices. The Subregional maize production fell by 27 per cent in 2015, triggering a sharp increase in the number of people already vulnerable to food insecurity in the region.
"Maize prices in southern Africa are really getting high," said Shukri Ahmed. "Moreover, currencies in the sub-region are very weak, which together can exacerbate the situation."
While the drought affects many crops, including legumes, which are an important contributor to local nutrition, maize is grown by 80 per cent of the subsistence farmers in the subregion.
Wholesale maize prices are up 50 per cent from a year earlier in South Africa, while retail maize prices have doubled in Malawi and Mozambique. As households are already reeling from the previous poor harvest devote more income to basic needs, their access to critical farm inputs - such as seeds and fertilisers - is jeopardized.
Beyond southern Africa, GIEWS analysis of El Niño-related conditions also points to agricultural stress in northern Australia, parts of Indonesia and a wide swathe of Central America and Brazil.
El Niño's effect is also being felt elsewhere in Africa, with FAO field officers in Ethiopia reporting serious crop and livestock losses among farmers and pastoralists.
This month, FAO also issued a warning that there is an increased risk of Rift Valley fever (RVF), especially in East Africa. Outbreaks of RVF, which primarily affects sheep, goats, cattle, camels, buffaloes and antelopes, but can also be lethal to humans, are closely associated with periods of El Niño-linked heavy rainfall, which bolster habitats for the mosquitoes that carry the disease.
The options to counter the possible human and animal disease threats include the use of insect repellents in households and vaccination of animals in target areas, but quality vaccines are needed as well as teams to be sent to the field immediately.
Action Plan for Southern Africa
To reduce the adverse effects of El Niño, FAO has already triggered several interventions across southern Africa that are also building on existing programmes following last season's reduced production.
"FAO is working on a twin track approach with governments and other partners across the subregion to address both the immediate and longer term needs. Appropriate crop and livestock interventions intended to minimise the effects are already being up-scaled," said David Phiri, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa.
The focus of immediate interventions includes supporting farmers by providing drought tolerant crops, seeds and livestock feed and carrying out vaccinations.
The Organisation is also supporting longer-term resilience-building approaches among vulnerable groups, including the rehabilitation of irrigation systems, improving farmers' access to rural finance, and supporting wider use of climate-smart agricultural technologies. Several countries have already produced national plans that address the impact of El Niño on agriculture.
Innovative interventions implemented in southern Africa in recent years have been particularly successful. Many of these good practices, including the rapid expansion of market-based interventions, non-conditional cash transfers and vouchers, adoption of climate smart technologies for both livestock and crop production systems, have been used to good effect in other crises.
"We are grateful for the contributions made by the development partners so far, but there are still significant funding shortfalls. We will need to rapidly adopt and scale up the innovations that have proved successful in the past," said Mr Phiri.