Saving lives through water safety

Lifeguards keep watch on St Clair Beach in Dunedin. Photo: ODT files
Lifeguards keep watch on St Clair Beach in Dunedin. Photo: ODT files
Drowning is the third-highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand. It is a sobering statistic and one worth remembering as many prepare to head on holiday breaks.

Summer holidays in New Zealand invariably mean some form of contact with lakes, swimming pools, rivers or the extensive coastline. That is what makes this country a paradise for those wanting to enjoy water-based activities. Boating, kayaking, swimming, surfing or fishing - there is something for everyone.

But, as Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) statistics show, with those opportunities also comes danger.

About 100 people die in New Zealand from drowning each year. According to WSNZ, 462 people died in preventable drownings since 2013.

Preventable drownings include recreational and non-recreational deaths in water. They do not include deaths arising from vehicle accidents,
homicide or suicide.

Already in 2018, 83 people have died and 65 of those were considered preventable.

New Zealand's drowning rate per 100,000 people is twice that of Australia and four times that of the United Kingdom. Over the past 10 years the cost of drowning deaths and injuries is estimated at about $4.79billion.

Men continue to be overrepresented in the statistics, accounting for about 80% of deaths and swimming remains the most common cause of drowning.

WSNZ chief executive Jonty Mills has laid some of the blame on a lack of water safety education in this country. He believes more education programmes should be available at primary schools and wants to see a minimum of eight 30-minute lessons taught to pupils each year.

A survey in 2016 of New Zealand schools found only a quarter were delivering to that level.

With a lack of water education, comes a blase attitude to safety. New Zealand's ''she'll be right'' approach only adds to the battle WSNZ is facing to reduce the annual death toll.

In October the organisation announced it was investing $2.2 million in water safety through two separate funds. The Drowning Prevention Fund supports projects delivering water skills. Its priority is the Water Skill for Life programme and aims to ensure a basic minimum standard is taught to all primary school pupils. The other fund is the Water Safety Research Fund which focuses on research projects into water safety.

The closure of school swimming pools has made it increasingly difficult for schools to ensure water safety remains part of the curriculum. Many children do now not have the same access to pools and regular swimming lessons as they once did.

Skyrocketing running costs and increased health and safety legislation has made the task of keeping pools open prohibitive. It is estimated about 165 school pools have closed in the last five years.

Many families are unable to afford private swimming lessons, meaning even the most basic water safety is overlooked.

New Zealanders should be able to enjoy the aquatic delights this country offers and, more importantly, be guaranteed of going home safely at the end of the day. Drowning numbers will only reduce if people play a part through education and a change of behaviour and attitude. A safer and more responsible approach to water safety is needed.

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