HARARE, May 9 (Reuters) - The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said on Monday up to 4.5 million people, half of Zimbabwe's drought-stricken rural population, will need aid by next March as the agency seeks to plug a funding gap of $290 million for assistance.
An El Nino-induced drought has hit southern Africa and cut the output of the staple maize crop. In March, the government said 4 million Zimbabweans required food aid, almost 30 percent of the national population.
UNDP resident coordinator Bishow Parajuli told reporters the agency had raised $70 million since President Robert Mugabe's government made a plea for aid in February, leaving a $290 million funding gap.
"We project the people in need will increase ... to approximately 4.5 million or 49 percent of the rural population during the peak of the lean season from January to March 2017," said Parajuli.
U.N. World Food Programme country director Eddie Rowe said Zimbabwe's 2016 maize production forecast would fall below 60 percent of the five-year average.
Zimbabwe's average harvest in the last five years has been between 700,000 and 1 million tonnes, against annual consumption of between 1.6 million and 1.8 million tonnes, he said.
The International Monetary Fund said last week Zimbabwe's economic difficulties had deepened after drought cut agriculture production and disrupted power generation. (Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Ed Stoddard)