6 Surprisingly Fascinating Stockpiles

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Various companies, countries, and organizations stockpile resources around the world. From medicine to cheese to diamonds, stockpiles can save the day...or be used to manipulate market prices. Here are six examples of the coolest stockpiles out there.

1. The Cholera Vaccine Stockpile

What's in the stockpile: 2 million doses of oral cholera vaccine. The vaccine requires two rounds of dosing—so the 2 million doses can be given to 1 million people. Each dose has a 30-month shelf life.

What it's been used for: Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that 140,000 people in South Sudan were being given the vaccine, marking the first use of this stockpile. The South Sudanese recipients are living in temporary camps during ongoing fighting, and the conditions in the camps put them at high risk for a cholera outbreak. It's impossible to know whether a cholera outbreak would have occurred without vaccination, but it's clear that for those 140,000 people, one deadly risk has been avoided. The vaccine can also be flown in quickly at the beginning of an outbreak to prevent the spread of cholera.

Where the stockpile is: Hyderabad, India, where the vaccine is manufactured. You can read more about this stockpile in a Q&A from earlier this week.

Here's a photo from Twitter celebrating the completion of the first round of vaccination delivery:

Bonus points: The WHO also maintains similar stockpiles of yellow fever and meningitis vaccines.

2. The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS)

What's in the stockpile: A variety of medicines and medical supplies to be used in public health emergencies within the U.S. The CDC describes the stockpile as containing "antibiotics, chemical antidotes, antitoxins, life-support medications, IV administration, airway maintenance supplies, and medical/surgical items." It's huge, and it's designed to cope with multiple massive emergencies simultaneously.

What it's been used for: 11 million regimes of antiviral medications, plus 39 million "respiratory protection devices" (masks, respirators, etc.), were deployed from the SNS in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza pandemic. These supplies were sent to affected states based on population. SNS supplies were also deployed on 9/11, during the subsequent anthrax attacks, and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Where the stockpile is: In "strategic locations" around the U.S. (in other words, it's classified.) The coolest feature of the SNS is the dozen "12-hour push packages," each a 50-ton mega-medicine package than can be deployed by air or ground to major cities in the U.S. within 12 hours after the order is given. (After 9/11, it took seven hours for a push package to arrive onsite.)

For more, consult this extensive document explaining the program. It's truly impressive.

3. Europe's Cotton Stockpile

"King Cotton" cotton plantation. Image courtesy Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons.

Not every stockpile is medical—and some are historical. This one dates back to the Civil War.

What was in the stockpile: In 1858, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina gave his famous "King Cotton" speech, arguing in part:

"What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?... England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her save the South. No, you dare not to make war on cotton. No power on the earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King."

The idea was that if southern American states stopped exporting cotton, England would be forced to intervene in the American Civil War, backing the Confederacy. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the English had a stockpile of cotton.

What it was used for: Stabilizing the international cotton market during the American Civil War. Because cotton export volume had been so high in the 1850s, England and various European countries were sitting on comfy stockpiles of cotton. When the southern cotton growers stopped exports (and a Union blockade ultimately prevented them), the value of the cotton soared, and cotton production in India and Egypt was increased.

Where the stockpile was: England and various European countries.

4. Government Cheese

What was in the stockpile: In the 1980s the USDA found itself with an abundance of cheese and butter, purchased from US dairy producers who couldn't sell all of it on the open market. This practice of buying up surplus dairy products dated to the Great Depression, when it began as a way to maintain the dairy industry.

What it was used for: In December of 1981, President Reagan signed a measure that would release 30 million pounds from the cheese stockpile. In 1983, the Temporary Emergency Food Distribution Program was formed to distribute the cheese, in large unsliced blocks. This is where the term "Government Cheese" comes from—it was literally cheese given to the underprivileged to supplement their diets. There's even a ChowHound thread in which former eaters of Government Cheese reminisce about how good it was in grilled cheese sandwiches.

Where the stockpile was: Caves in Missouri. (Yes, really.) The New York Times reported that by 1983 the value of the national cheese-and-butter stockpile was over $4 billion.

5. The Diamond Stockpile

What's in the stockpile: Starting in the 1880s, Cecil Rhodes, then chairman of De Beers Consolidated Mines, bought up all the diamond mines he could. De Beers then proceeded to stockpile rough (uncut) diamonds.

What it's been used for: Convincing people that diamonds are more rare than they really are. While diamonds aren't going to turn up in your backyard, there are many diamond mines in the world. But the diamond industry has used stockpiling and limited releases to create artificial scarcity, which drives up prices. In 2000, De Beers reduced the size of its diamond stockpile (from an estimated $3.9 billion to $2.5 billion) after other companies began to dump diamonds in the market. Over a decade later, the stockpiling continued as various companies regulated the flow of diamonds in order to keep prices high.

Where the stockpile is: We don't know. A Washington Post article simply stated: "basement vaults," which sounds about right.

6. The U.N.'s Humanitarian Response Depots

What's in the stockpile: Five United Nations Humanitarian Response Depots (UNHRD) with emergency supplies for use in response to disasters. Managed by the World Food Programme (WFP), the depots contain all manner of food and survival gear. You can actually run a report to see what's currently in the stockpile.

What it's been used for: The depots deploy supplies frequently, as detailed in a series of weekly reports. In a memorable recent example, during Typhoon Haiyan, UNHRD shipped food and equipment to the Philippines. The WFP wrote, "In the first 24 hours, approximately 42 metric tons (mt) of High Energy Biscuits (HEBs) and emergency IT equipment were called forward to be packed up and ready for shipment from the Dubai facilities."

Where the stockpile is: There are six "strategically placed hubs" around the world, positioned near disaster-prone areas and near shipping facilities. The current hubs are located in Ghana, UAE, Malaysia, Panama, Spain, and Italy. They are designed to deliver supplies to disaster areas within 24 to 48 hours.