South Africa is praying for rain as it faces its worst drought since the '80s

A stream of polluted water runs through as a resident from Zandspruit carries an empty bucket to be filled from one of the few communal water taps available to the thousands of people living in the Zandspruit informal settlement on March 11, 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — At churches across South Africa, people are praying for rain.

In an effort to coax the heavens to open and the worsening drought to end, the South African Council of Churches has called for Sunday services to include prayers for the summer rains to begin. Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana has even asked families to devote their daily evening prayers to a respite from the dry weather.

Such is the concern about the drought, which government officials say is the worst here since the 1980s and is affecting some 2.7 million households, or about 18 percent of the population. Meteorologists are blaming El Nino, the global weather phenomenon, which in sub-Saharan Africa tends to cause dry conditions.

It is summer in South Africa, and for most of the country, the start of the rainy season. In Johannesburg, for example, this means almost daily thunderstorms accompanied by heavy rain. But while a heat wave has arrived, the rains have not.

Many areas are already feeling the effects of water shortages, with poorer communities usually the most affected.  

In the coastal town of Port Shepstone, in KwaZulu-Natal, residents say their drinking water has been contaminated with sea water. South Africa's capital, Pretoria, has put water restrictions in place.

Farmers are under major strain, with last year's rains also below average. Food prices — especially for maize, the main staple crop — are expected to rise.

Two South African provinces, the Free State and North West, have been declared disaster areas for agriculture, making them eligible for emergency funds from the national treasury. KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces expected to soon be designated the same. 

All of this spells more trouble for the already struggling South African economy, which the IMF expects to grow by just 1.4 percent this year, and even less in 2016.