The difference between surviving or dying in this year's Ethiopian famine could well depend upon how close a peasant lives to transportation routes and distribution points.

Hugh Goyder, the British Oxfam relief agency representative, described the famine as "an avoidable disaster" if enough food can be delivered to thousands of people isolated from the country's transportation system.

At present there is enough grain in the country, said Hussein Rahman of the United Nations World Food Program. The food offloading capacity of Ethiopia's two ports of Aseb and Mitsiwa is only 500 tons a day, meaning that it would take six months for the country to absorb the 90,000 tons requested by the U.N. Disaster Relief Office unless there is an expensive airlift.

The problem is to get the food to distribution centers near enough for people to travel to them and then return to their villages.

That task is formidable because of lack of transportation equipment and roads. Tens of thousands of those afflicted must walk for many days to get to a distribution center.

In one of the world's poorest countries, the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission faces the mind-boggling job of feeding more than a million widely scattered people.

A few numbers in Gondar administrative region, which is not the hardest hit of the four drought-affected northern provinces, paint a grim picture.

It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 people in the province need food relief but only about 200,000 are being reached at nine distribution centers, according to Adenou Mumuye, the relief commission's director in Gonder.

Last month only six relief commission trucks were in operating condition to deliver food supplies, although some newly repaired vehicles are expected soon. Trailers, which would greatly increase each delivery, are not available. The commission says it needs 10 more heavy-duty trucks in the province.

Two months ago, a commission official said, more trucks were running but there was no food to deliver. Now there is a warehouse full of grain at Addis Zemen, southeast of Gonder and not enough vehicles to deliver it.

"Half a dozen mechanics and some spare parts could do wonders," Rahman said.

World Vision International of Monrovia, Calif., mounted an expensive airlift to the Zwi Hamusit shelter before it was closed. Up to 12 round-trip flights a day by a Twin Otter turboprop plane, costing $600 each, were sent to the camp carrying 1.9 metric tons of food each. The high-cost project, however, was of dubious value because plane breakdowns twice delayed deliveries for long periods. No substitute method of supply was available.

Sometimes a small expenditure can go a long way toward bringing food to thousands of people. Some privately owned vehicles are available in the province but lack of money for the commission and a frustrating government bureaucracy have stalled their use.

Then last month Oxfam appropriated about $11,500 to hire trucks that moved 500 tons of food into the distribution centers over a 10-day period.

That small outlay means that 28,000 people will receive subsistence rations for one month, a move that could save many lives.

Similarly, rebuilding a 15-mile road from Nefas Mochas south to Arbagay would mean 25,000 more people could be reached, and another 50 miles of road to Moja to the southwest would feed another 50,000 people, the commission said.

The crude roads, which would only last for one rainy season, would be built by manual labor, employing thousands of peasants who would be paid in food. The commission, however, has not managed to organize the road projects yet.

"We just need trucks, we need to get food and we need to get going," a frustrated international relief offical said. "But I guess we will have to have a few more study missions before we get that message across."