MEKELE, ETHIOPIA -- Gebre Miriam Ehiwot has done what good Ethiopian farmers are supposed to do.

When the rains came in May, he planted corn. When the rains failed in July and his corn died, he plowed it under and tried again. He planted teff, a short-season grain. But again the rain, after sputtering for 22 days in August, failed.

"From now onward, there is nothing to be harvested," the 46-year-old farmer said last week. He stood in a field of teff, which by mid-September should be knee-high and flowering. Instead, the spindly crop was three inches high.

"It is hopeless," said Gebre. "God wants to punish us. God is angry."

Gebre's fields are in the highlands of Tigray, the heart of Ethiopia's famine region. Records dating back to 1890 show that every eight to 10 years, there is severe drought and famine in these rocky highlands. Tigrayan farmers like Gebre expect it.

What they do not expect, what they ascribe to divine retribution, is that severe and widespread drought should strike just three years after the worst-of-the-century drought of 1984.

About 1.4 million Tigrayans were destitute then. More than 120,000 of them descended on the regional capital, Mekele. Starving, diseased and oddly passive, they died at a rate of more than 100 a day as they waited for someone to feed them.

"The drought situation is more or less the same as it was in 1984," said Brother Caesar Bullo, who now, as then, coordinates emergency operations in Tigray for the Catholic Secretariat. "The difference is that this year there is a famine-relief structure. There is a food distribution system and there is time.

"If we can get food and send it outside to the farms, we can avoid the creation of the shelters where so many people died."

Tigray and Eritrea, the two northernmost regions of Ethiopia, are again the hardest hit parts of this country as drought has forced the government to appeal for nearly 1 million ton of international food aid.

A survey in August by a team from the U.S. Agency for International Development reported a total crop failure in Eritrea and a 75 percent crop failure in Tigray. The regions have a combined population of about 5.1 million people.

Thus far, most Eritreans and Tigrayans are thought to be in a predicament akin to that of Gebre, the farmer whose crops have failed and who says God is against him.

He has little food left in his house from last year's good harvest. His wife and four children are not yet hungry or sick. But he said that unless they can get food, which he wants to work for, they soon will be.

The coming food emergency in Ethiopia, which may require as much outside food aid and costly transportation equipment as the huge famine relief operation in 1984-85, does not yet have the emotional hook of severely malnourished people.

"If you don't have some nice pictures of starving children, I don't know how the public will respond. There may be a problem of getting food this time," said Jean-Jacques Fresard, chief delegate in Ethiopia for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Despite the lack of pitiful images, the U.N.'s World Food Program says that "dramatically increased" food aid needs in Tigray will start in November and continue until November 1988.

So far, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa has sent an emergency request to Washington for 115,000 tons of food to be delivered around the first of the year. The European Community and the World Food Program are preparing a similar request for 85,000 tons of food.

Until that food arrives, donors say they will try to divert to the north all food aid en route to Ethiopia and that which is already inside the country. Those stocks are expected to be exhausted by January.

"It is most important that stocks be moved as soon as the increased needs manifest themselves," according to a World Food Program report. "Otherwise people will move toward towns as in 1984-85 and shelters will be established with consequent water, sanitation and health problems."

It is believed that a large proportion of the estimated 1 million deaths in Ethiopia during the last famine occurred in famine shelters, which were breeding grounds for infectious disease.

Here in Tigray, the prevention of famine is more complicated than either early detection of drought or timely arrival in Ethiopian ports of foreign food. The complication is civil war.

Most of Tigray outside the regional capital is controlled by rebels of the Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front. During the 1984-85 famine, relief officials repeatedly accused the Ethiopian government of indifference to starvation in these rebel-held areas.

The government in Addis Ababa, about 300 miles south of here, made almost no effort to transport food to Mekele until a television crew arrived in the fall of 1984 and shot gruesome footage of starving children. The pictures sparked worldwide interest in Ethiopia and led to a billion-dollar relief effort. Yet even after the government here appealed for large-scale assistance, relief workers complained that officials in Addis Ababa were reluctant to assemble military convoys to escort food into Tigray.

Berhanu Jembere, head of Ethiopia's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, has said that the government will make every effort in the coming year to transport food quickly to Tigray.

Expected delays, however, in overland delivery of food to Tigray already have prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross to prepare to resume emergency airlifts to Mekele. The airlift was used extensively in 1984-85. The Red Cross' Fresard said the airlift, using Hercules cargo planes, probably will begin in October.

The experience of the last famine and the presence in Tigray of scores of foreign aid workers should help prevent a repeat of the mass suffering and death that occurred in Tigray in 1984-85, according to Fresard.

"The Ethiopian government will have no choice," he said. "They cannot hide the problem. Knowing this, they will have to cope. There are too many witnesses."

What witnesses first see in Tigray at this stage of the coming emergency is a thin veneer of pale green vegetation.

"When you look at the green it is deceptive," said Habtu Twolde, regional director of the government Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. "It is a green that will die.

"The August rain stopped just as the crops were starting to flower. The grain is now wilting, photosynthesis has stopped and leaves are falling off. By now, the grain should be ripening and there should be the beginnings of a harvest."

The abrupt end of the August rains after 22 days followed a July drought that relief officials in Tigray say has no known precedent. Not only was the drought widespread throughout Tigray and Eritrea, but it was total, without one day of rain.

"We were terrorized when the rains did not come," said Habtu.

"No one can remember a July when there was no rain at all. It should rain every day, all day and all night. It is a miracle, lacking rain all that time," he said.

Like almost all farmers in Ethiopia, farmers in Tigray are dependent from year to year on rain. They use little fertilizer or improved seed. Even after a very good harvest, such as in 1986, most farmers store no more than a year's supply of food.

"For us the limiting factor is the rain," said Habtu. "If there is no rain, there is nothing."

The July drought started a panic over food prices. The price of grain and fruit doubled in the Mekele market as farmers began to hoard. The price of meat dropped by half as farmers began to sell livestock that they feared they would be unable to feed.

Gebru Teka, a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, said this week that many farmers have given up on growing food this year. He said cattle have been put to graze on the wilting fields before they dry up completely.

This year's drought catches Tigray in the midst of building dams that are supposed to help ease the effect of the next famine -- the one expected in about eight years, not the one that threatens now.

Since the last famine Tigrayan farmers have built, entirely with hand labor, 46 "micro-earth dams." The small landfills catch water in gullies, water that in the past would have been wasted as runoff. It is used as drinking water for people and livestock, as well as for small irrigation projects.

Although this year's drought has limited the amount of water there is to catch, the dams are likely to help more people and livestock survive in 1988 than in 1984-85.

The dams were built under food-for-work plans, in which farmers are paid about seven pounds of grain for a day's work. The program has been used with success across Ethiopia in the past three years as a way of feeding destitute people without fostering dependence on handouts.

Gebre Miriam Ehiwot, the farmer, made it through the last famine on a food-for-work program. He said this week that he wants to start immediately on another program -- to build a micro-earth dam near his dried-up teff.

Relief officials say they need urgent shipments of food to start and maintain food-for-work programs for the farmers who now have no other way to feed their families.

"Farmers have told our people that they are not scared about the future, because they know if it gets bad, we will help them," said Fresard of the Red Cross. "They count on us. I hope we can deliver."