ROME, ITALY — Crop production prospects in Southern Africa have been weakened by the El Niño weather phenomenon that has lowered rains and increased temperatures, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said.

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 Dec. 22 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 program leader.

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 neighboring countries, FAO said.

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, FAO said.

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 Sub-regional maize production fell by 27% 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% of the subsistence farmers in the sub-region.

Wholesale maize prices are up 50% 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 fertilizers - is jeopardized, FAO said.

Beyond southern Africa, GIEWS analysis of El Niño-related conditions also points to agricultural stress in northern Australia, parts of Indonesia and a wide swath of Central America and Brazil.

To reduce the adverse effects of El Niño, FAO has already triggered several interventions across southern Africa that are also building on existing programs following last season's reduced production.

"FAO is working on a twin track approach with governments and other partners across the sub-region to address both the immediate and longer term needs,” said David Phiri, FAO sub-regional coordinator for Southern Africa. “Appropriate crop and livestock interventions intended to minimize the effects are already being up-scaled."

The focus of immediate interventions includes supporting farmers by providing drought tolerant crops, seeds and livestock feed and carrying out vaccinations. The organization 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, FAO said. 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 Phiri.