Naval action isn't going to end piracy. For a durable solution, governments need to find ways to bring order to one of the world's most dangerous regions.

Late in 1815, ten British warships arrived off Algiers, armed with dozens of cannon — and orders to use nothing else to negotiate with the Barbary coast corsairs holed up in the citadel-port. The British and their Dutch allies suffered 141 dead — but killed more than 2,000 pirates, destroyed their fleet and levelled their fortifications. Barbary pirates continued to prey on merchant traffic until 1830, when the French occupied Algiers, but their backbone was broken.

For years now, the world's merchant seamen have been fantasising about a similar solution to the grim tsunami of piracy that is washing through the Indian Ocean.

Even though 30 navies are now operating in the Indian ocean — an unprecedented multinational effort that has brought together countries as diverse as the United States and Iran, as well as India and Pakistan — attacks by Somali groups actually rose to 237 last year, from 219 in 2010.

Last year alone, 802 crew were taken hostage and eight killed; 159 sailors are still captive in Somalia, waiting for fleet-owners to cough up ransoms that could range up to $4 million for the 10 ships now held by pirates.

Failed by governments, merchant seamen have increasingly turned to using force to protect themselves. Last week's shooting of two unarmed Kerala fishermen by naval marines stationed on board an Italian tanker has underlined the risks of allowing ill-trained, and often panicked, personnel to use lethal force. There is little point, though, to blaming merchant crews for seeking to defend themselves unless governments can find ways to protect them.

The solution to high-seas piracy lies on dry land — and will need means more complex and subtle than the cannon that levelled the corsairs in 1815.

The pirate cartels

Somalia's pirate cartels have their roots in a failed state: the country has had no real government since 1991. Its Western-backed administration, under siege from the powerful jihadist group al-Shabaab, has no influence outside the capital, Mogadishu, and it survives because of the presence of African Union peacekeepers, backed by the United States. The country's economy is in ruins.

The quasi-independent region of Puntland remained relatively peaceful, but its coastal community none the less felt the impacts of the collapse of the Somali state. Foreign trawlers began to prey on Puntland's fishing grounds with impunity, destroying a traditional source of livelihood. There were no funds to modernise their operations, and no investments to give them market access. The flooding of the region with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers led many young men to turn to the pirate cartels that sprang up from 2005.

From 2005, the business began to bring in real money. The Ukrainian-flagged Faina, loaded with tanks and antiaircraft guns, brought in a $3.2-million ransom. The super-tanker Sirius Star, netted the pirate cartels $3 million. Last year, the Thai-owned Thor Nexus and its 27 crew, hijacked 560 km off the coast of Oman on Christmas day, were ransomed for $5 million.

Experts say the pirate cartels now function much like modern businesses. Puntland's capital, Garowe, hosts a stock exchange where criminal cartels can put up money to fund future attacks. Banks based in Hong Kong and Singapore help route ransom payments from owners to the pirates, while British-owned firms based in Kenya conduct negotiations and air-drop cash to the cartels.

Local communities, administrators and even less-than-scrupulous bankers have been seduced with the cash pirate cartels in the Somali ports of Eyl, Xharadhere, Garard and Ras Asir bring in: estimated at $176 million in 2010, and close to $200 million last year.

For the last two years, faced with ever-increasing insurance premiums and mutinous crews, merchant ship operators have pumped in ever-more money to secure vessels. In many ships, crew quarters are now equipped with attack-proof strong rooms, where sailors can safely retreat when under attack. In some cases, like Italy, governments have been willing to provide ships with armed guards; in others, companies have turned to private companies, who charge upwards of $50,000 per voyage for the service.

“It's easy to say these measures are dangerous and even illegal”, a London-based analyst told The Hindu, “but it's not so easy to persuade someone who doesn't want to be held hostage in Somali to listen”.

Dry land solutions

Is there a solution? In a path-breaking paper published last month, the scholar Anja Shortland used satellite images to assess the economic benefits of piracy. Little of the cash, she found, remained in communities at the coastal ports used by pirate cartels to recruit gunmen. Instead, the satellite images Dr. Shortland analysed showed, much of money ended in major towns. Garowe, Puntland's provincial capital, had a dramatic increase in the numbers of new cars and houses. International developmental intervention, this data suggests, could provide a means to deny the cartels their sources of cadre and support — if governments can find the will and means to work in one of the world's most dangerous regions.

This much, though, is clear: the massed guns of the world's navies have done relatively little to deter global piracy. Last year, the London-based International Maritime Bureau's authoritative international commercial crimes division recorded 439 incidents of piracy and high-seas armed robbery — only a marginal decline from 445 in 2010. Somalia-based groups alone accounted for 54 per cent of those attacks, though concerted naval action destroyed at least 20 pirate fleets.

In 2010, maritime expert Anna Bowden estimated that piracy was costing the world between $7 billion and $12 billion a year — up to $3.2 billion of that from additional insurance premiums, another $ 3 billion for re-routing ships through safer routes, $2.5 billion for security equipment and some $2 billion for maintaining international forces in the Indian Ocean.

Even though the great powers seem willing to engage in endless wars against terrorists or narcotics traffickers, there is no stomach for an intervention designed to address the piracy threat.

Warships, experts concur, aren't going to solve the problem. In March 2011, the United States' Government Accountability Office said a naval analysis had “estimated that 1,000 ships equipped with helicopters would be required to provide the same level of coverage in the Indian Ocean that is currently provided in the Gulf of Aden — an approach that is clearly infeasible”.

Finding means to rebuild Somalia's coastal villages, and bring order to the region, might seem just as infeasible — but it is time nations at least began considering how it might be done.

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