KUWAIT CITY // The fear of being captured by Somali pirates is complicating aid deliveries to the famine-ravaged Horn of Africa.
Sulaiman Shamseldin, the director general of the Kuwait-based International Islamic Charitable Organisation (IICO), said the armed gangs who patrol the coast are forcing charities to use more indirect and expensive routes.
Mr Shamseldin admitted that "there is a risk" of aid shipments being captured by armed pirates.
The director general was speaking at a two-day conference in Kuwait City aimed at coordinating the activities of more than 140 aid organisations in the region.
The IICO recently sent 120 tonnes of aid to a port at Berbera in the north of Somalia rather than to the capital, Mogadishu, "because of this issue".
One company offered to deliver a shipment of aid to a "more secure" port in Djibouti before flying it to areas where it was needed - but it would have cost three million Kuwaiti dinars (Dh40 million).
Insurance for the transport is also prohibitively expensive, Mr Shamseldin added. International navies trying to deter piracy have focused on Somalia's north coast, which is of crucial importance to ships using the Suez Canal.
The threat of piracy could hamper aid deliveries to an area of Africa that is, according to the UN, facing "the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world today".
A regional drought has left 13.3 million of the Horn of Africa's 160 million inhabitants in need of humanitarian assistance.
About four million Somalis are among the worst affected and most live in large swathes of land in the south controlled by Al Shabab Islamist militants.
Valarie Amos, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator at the UN, said she "has got no sense that piracy has hampered the relief effort". But she added that "if you do have to do stuff by air, it very much increases the costs".
The conference in Kuwait was to tackle the challenge of coordination between the aid agencies and to identify "where the gaps are" and "where we don't have anybody operating", said Ms Amos.
Ben Parker, the director of the east Africa office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said: "We were trying to tell the world last year that this was developing to be a serious situation and, sadly, we were right."
He said Ethiopia and Kenya face similar weather to Somalia. "We don't even know the situation in Eritrea," Mr Parker added.
The threat of starvation has caused millions of Somalis to flee their homes to refugee camps around the capital and borders, or attempt the treacherous journey over the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.
"The fourth biggest city in Kenya is a refugee camp" with about 500,000 people, Mr Parker said.
The UN has requested nearly US$2.5 billion (Dh9.2bn) in aid and has achieved about $1.5bn, or 62 per cent of the target.
Additional funds have been raised by non-governmental organisations and through direct transfers to the transitional federal government in Mogadishu. Farah Sheikh, the Kenyan relief coordinator in the Horn of Africa for Direct Aid, a Kuwaiti charity that focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, said about 750,000 people risk death or malnutrition.
"The response we are getting is very limited compared with the need we have," Mr Sheikh said.
He criticised the slow response of international organisations to the crisis "not only to the Al Shabab-held areas, but even to other areas".
Al Shabab, which has been linked to Al Qaeda, has refused to permit some organisations from operating in areas it controls.
Mr Sheikh said militants prohibited dry food aid during harvest time to protect local growers.