Drought has laid waste to the once-lush Tokar delta on Sudan's Red Sea coast for the first time this century, another sign the country faces a famine that Western relief agencies say could affect millions.

The delta's 400,000 acres - once expected to be East Africa's breadbasket - have turned from rich farmland into a gray expanse of baked clay."This is the first year since 1899 where there is absolutely nothing," said the delta's chief administrative officer, al-Fadil Abdalla al-Mahdi.

The delta, normally irrigated by floods from the Ethiopian plateau, was chosen by British colonial rulers in 1899 for one of three major Sudanese agriculture projects. It has long been a showpiece, spared the drought conditions that have ravaged much of Africa's largest nation.

The 16-month-old military government says the nation of more than 25 million is experiencing only a "food gap" and predicts the coming harvest will be sufficient to prevent widespread hardships.

It blames the 1 million ton grain shortage largely on relief agencies' panic buying. Officials have seized stocks from merchants and agencies to sell at subsidized prices.

But the U.S. Agency for International Development and most other major relief organizations fear a famine beginning early 1991 comparable to the mid-1980s when hundreds of thousands of Sudanese and Ethiopians perished. Another 250,000 to 500,000 Sudanese died in later years as southern rebels blocked food shipments and clashed with government troops.

Last month, U.S. relief officials said as many as 11 million Sudanese are threatened by starvation, but Sudan's government is blocking international food deliveries.

"If the actual level of need is as high as some people fear, and the donor community is not allowed to respond, we are looking at an apocalyptic situation worse than in Ethiopia in 1984," said Andrew Natsios, director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said at the time.

Unless the government changes its policies, "there is little chance of anything happening in the near future to avert a famine," Richard Graham wrote for the Britain-based charity Oxfam.

In places such as Tokar, 400 miles northeast of Khartoum, signs of a famine are unmistakable.

Herdsman Hussein Mohamed Gassim has taken a job drawing water from a well to sell at up to $1.25 a barrel. He said he's sent some of his goats to relatives inland in hopes they survive.

"This is not a desert. It's the drought," said Gassim, who looks much older than his 45 years. "This place was once as green as paradise itself."

Sorghum, the staple grain for Sudanese and their animals, has become so scarce in Tokar that feeding a sheep for three days costs more than the animal will bring at market these days.

The sell-off of livestock has lowered the price of a sheep to below $3.50. At that price, a sheepherder would have to sell 50 to buy a 198-pound sack of open-market sorghum. Even a government-subsidized bag, if it can be found, costs 6 1/2 times the selling price of a sheep.

A trickle of families, mainly members of the delta's Beja and Beni Amir nomadic tribes who live off raising sheep, goats and camels, have begun arriving at Tokar, a town of 32,000.

Correspondents brought by the U.N. World Food Program visited about 30 families living in a cluster of hovels made of sticks and sacks.

Sheik Adam Safafay, a white-bearded Beja chieftain, said another 7,000 of his people are living with relatives in or around Tokar.

Fatima Nabulsa, World Food Program field coordinator, said 80 percent of the area's livestock has been lost since 1985.

In the late 1980s Oxfam began a project designed to provide each family 25 goats and a camel. Officials said 60 percent of those animals have died or been slaughtered or sold during the past six months.