Water gives, and it takes away

Water is the basis of life.

Its pull is universal. We are largely comprised of it. We drink it, we harvest from it, we play in it, and we test ourselves in it. It is peaceful and it is merciless. It gives and, sadly, it takes.

Last week police released the name of a recent drowning in Otago. Forty-seven-year-old Clinton Kino died four days before Christmas, swept off the rocks by a wave while fishing at Cape Saunders on the Otago Peninsula.

A month before, Dean Thomas (57), a lifelong ‘‘hunter-gatherer’’ of Maheno, died while gathering paua near Shag Point. He was found unconscious in the water by a friend.

Russell McDonald was found drowned after a jet-boat capsized in the Waitaki River in October. The 67-year-old Waitaki Bridge man was remembered by local residents as an ‘‘absolutely beautiful’’ and ‘‘an amazing man’’.

A rock fisherman. A paua diver. A river angler on a jet-boat.

Seventy-eight preventable drowning fatalities occurred nationally last year, Water Safety New Zealand’s provisional annual drowning report shows.

That is 12 more than in 2018, an 18% increase. The toll for 2019 almost matched the five-year average of 79 drownings across 2014–18.

The death rate of preventable drownings in New Zealand last year was 1.6 per 100,000 of population, the same rate as the five-year average.

Otago and Southland have relatively low populations compared with many parts of the country but our regions have more than their fair share of tragedy in the water.

Regionally, the highest number of drownings last year were Auckland (17), Northland (15), Waikato (seven), Otago (seven) and Southland (six).

The Otago toll rose last year from five the year before. Southland fared worse — six drownings compared with one in 2018.

The most common cause of drowning last year was accidental immersion (19) followed by 15 swimming incidents, the provisional figures show.

The next main three causes were land-based fishing (12), power boat accidents (11) and underwater diving (11).

Beaches, rivers and tidal waters had predictably the most drownings in 2019. Twenty-six people drowned at beaches, 19 in rivers and 12 in tidal waters.

Nationally, six people died by drowning during the official holiday period — two more water-related deaths than the corresponding time last year, Water Safety New Zealand figures show.

The period covered from 4pm on Christmas Eve to 6am on January 3. They included four swimming incidents, one snorkelling and one collecting shellfish.

Two drowned at beaches, two in pools, one in a lake and the other in the harbour. Five were male and one was female.

Each victim was aged 40 years and older. Four of them were alone when they drowned. None in the holiday period occurred in Otago or Southland.

Could it be the South’s poor weather over the holiday break saved lives? Cool temperatures, wind and rain left southern beaches somewhat deserted on many days.

Summer’s late arrival is cause to remain vigilant. Warmer weather will entice more to our beaches, rivers and lakes as the end of school holidays are in sight.

Males, tending to be the biggest risk-takers, accounted for 85% of water fatalities last year.

Water Safety New Zealand says New Zealand has one of the highest drowning rates in the OECD and is a national disgrace.

Life is to be enjoyed to the full. It is not without risk, and to an extent nor should it be.

But as we venture into the water, we are reminded our actions and choices can bear enormous consequences.

We must know our limitations, teach our young and newcomers how to be water-wise, and look out for one another.

Our drowning statistics are more than raw numbers. Each one is a life cut short, a family devastated and a community always the poorer.


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