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As a country, we love water. With easy access to the sea, lakes, rivers and swimming pools, activities involving the water form a natural part of New Zealand life. Yet our abundant water activities are not without risk. Drowning is consistently the third highest cause of unintentional death in New Zealand (approximately 115 deaths per year), surpassed only by road vehicle crashes and accidental falls. For every one fatality there are eight near fatal drowning incidents.
Our children and young people bear the greatest risks. The highest death rates occur between people aged 15 to 24 years, followed by children 0 to 4 years of age. The most common water-related recreational activities responsible for drowning events are swimming, fishing and boating. Approximately 80% of those who drown and 72% of hospitalisations are male.
These statistics would be much higher but for the efforts of dedicated professionals who work hard to keep our beaches safe. For example, each year Surf Living Saving patrols throughout New Zealand make over 2000 rescues and take over 80,000 preventative actions.
Providing children and young people with the skills and knowledge to be able to manage risk and prevent them being in risky situations in the first place lies at the heart of preventing people drowning or being injured. The single most important water safety skill you can encourage your child to learn is to swim.
New Zealand schools were traditionally recognised as the primary venue for our children learning to swim. However, this is no longer the case. Many schools are not able to meet the needs of their students’ declining swimming skills resulting in many children missing out altogether on swim and survival education. In 2008, it was found that just one in five 10-year-olds could swim 200m – the benchmark Water Safety New Zealand considers necessary in order to swim and survive in the water.
Swim and Survival skills are essential. By learning to swim and survive, children and young people are better equipped to cope with an adverse situation in the water.
Swimming lessons are conducted in a controlled and safe environment which allows skills and confidence to grow. Many swim schools provide lessons for babies as young as six months old – a primary goal being water confidence. A child who panics when accidently immersed in water has a much higher chance of drowning. However, a note of caution: Research has found that too many parents who have children enrolled in swimming lessons have an overly optimistic view of the protective role such lessons play in toddler drowning prevention. No young child should be permitted to play in or near water without active supervision.
No water activity should be undertaken without appropriate training. We don’t let our teenagers behind the wheel of a car without adequate training and proof that they know the road code, yet far too often people take to the water without the necessary knowledge or training to keep themselves safe. When using any kind of equipment in or near the water, there are hazards to be managed. Proper training in those activities will help to minimise the risks.