Object 9

Disaster Kits

2020, Tehran, Iran

A magnitude 8.2 earthquake in Alaska in 2016. Super-typhoon Mellar in the Philippines in 2017. Severe flooding of the Danube in 2019, and a landslide that killed 190 people in Darjeeling that same year. Natural disasters are a way of life and death on our planet. Even today, there's little we can do to prevent them, and we've only recently been able to predict them with any certainty. What we can control, however, is how we prepare for them.

In the early 21st century, governments in disaster-prone areas such as Japan and California had long held regular disaster drills and encouraged citizens to prepare disaster supply kits. Unfortunately, this assumed that people would have the time, money, and inclination to buy and assemble a kit, which was sadly proven wrong time and time again.

By 2019, the 'solution' of asking people to make their own kits was deemed to be desperately inegalitarian given the human and economic costs of not being prepared. Consequently, the United Nations began to recommend that states supply disaster kits to citizens for free, with poorer countries given UN subsidies.

Among the first to adopt the practice were earthquake-prone countries such as Iran, Turkey, and those around the Pacific Ring of Fire, plus flood-prone areas along the Yellow River and Yangtze River in China, and in Louisiana and Florida in the United States.

The curators from the National Museum of Iran have kindly lent me a splendidly preserved disaster kit from 2020. The kit sits inside a tough 30-centimetre by 20-centimetre plastic case. Five sides of the box are covered in solar panels that trickle-charge the transceiver embedded into the case, allowing it to be located even when buried below metres of rubble or earth; the sixth side holds a shatter-resistant mirror for signalling. Inside, there are high-energy food bars, a multi-function knife, a first-aid kit, water, gloves, a whistle, a torch, a reflective blanket, and more — objects perfectly familiar to people from well over a century ago.

But there are a few new tricks here as well — not just objects such as water purification straws and a high-capacity battery to recharge wearables or phones, but also new ways to better distribute scarce supplies.

Take the first-aid kit, for example. These cases all include the standard items — penicillin, painkillers, bandages, and so on. However, there are many other medicines and drugs that any given person or family might need during a disaster that can’t fit inside their own kit. The solution? Among the millions of disaster kits they made, the UN spread a wide variety of antivirals, antibiotics, analgesics, and electrolytes. On its own, these random medicines solved little — hoping to stumble across someone with a kit that held exactly what you needed was hardly a smart strategy.

That's where the transceiver came in. It had two roles: firstly, as a high-powered emergency transponder; and secondly, as a mesh network router. Embedded in the carrying straps of the case are aerials that allow the kit to communicate with all other kits within 500 metres. They didn't have a high bandwidth — only 20mbps — but they were capable of temporarily restoring a basic data network in areas suffering total infrastructure failure. Simply opening the kit activated the transceiver, automatically registering its location and contents with the local network so that people could find and share medicine.

After the 2020 earthquake in Ardabil, Iran, the disaster kits helped survivors locate one another far faster than in previous cases, and helped re-establish proper network functionality within hours, saving thousands of lives and substantial resources. These capabilities didn't go unnoticed, with other countries ordering or manufacturing tens of millions of kits over the next year and beyond.

It wasn't just nation states who paid attention; activists also desperately needed a secure mode of communication that didn't rely on centrally controlled infrastructure. While the early 21st century is often depicted as a time of plenty — abundant hydrocarbons, favourable demographics, and a comparatively pristine environment — the truth is that most people lived extremely precarious lives, with low income security and little control over their future. Even the richest people in the richest countries — notably Western Europe and the US — were fearful and unhappy, their beliefs clouded by a media that told them that things could only get worse.

The unhappiest of all were those with the least to lose. Whether they were students with a decade and a half of full-time education but no job prospects, or people in their forties and fifties on low-paid temporary work, they were united by a deep frustration in democratic politics. Elections held every four or five years, usually featuring the same small handful of professional politicians beholden to their parties and other interest groups, seemed to put a lie to the notion of 'representative' democracy.

This dissatisfaction frequently erupted in the form of strikes or one-off rallies and protests, and just as frequently was dismissed by governments as illegitimate. After all, the government had been voted into power by the people themselves, and therefore held the ultimate mandate! And so while the protests continued, many were sceptical of their effectiveness.

Over time, the protests became larger and lasted longer, taking over entire districts of cities, such as the SAZ Puerta del Sol in Madrid. While the protesters were resourceful enough to bring their own food and supplies, they were quickly isolated from the world as authorities cut landlines and jammed wireless and satellite transmissions. For movements that depended on a steady flow of information and support, the silence was fatal.

Disaster kits were used to fill that gap. Modifying the mesh network firmware allowed protesters to encrypt their data, and careful use of the kits' solar panels kept them alive for weeks. Despite regular attacks on the network infrastructure — such as the highly destructive ‘Pinkerton’ worm that exploited a flaw in the kits' baseband processors during the 2022 Jubilee Marches — the protesters usually managed to issue patches via USB.

The kits were only a small part of those activist movements, but they did their job well. What once had been invented as a way to address purely physical suffering during natural disasters had been adapted to alleviate the suffering of the soul.