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Source: Water Safety New Zealand

Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) has published final preventable drowning fatality and hospitalisation data in the Drowning Report 2019, as it considers the impact of COVID-19 on water safety.

Drowning is the leading cause of recreational death and the third highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand. In 2019 there were 82 preventable* drowning fatalities and 203 drowning related hospitalisations**. WSNZ now presents the data in an online interactive format so it is easier to access for analysis and insights.

The total of 82 is an increase of 16, or 24 percent, compared to the 66 preventable drowning fatalities in 2018. The drowning toll is trending down, however, when compared to New Zealand’s growing population but still every year too many people lose their lives or are injured in New Zealand in preventable drowning incidents.

“Families and communities are left devastated and this has real and profound impact on many people’s lives,” says WSNZ Chief Executive, Jonty Mills. “While our waterways are our playground they can be incredibly unforgiving and need to be treated with respect.”

“The toll reflects the complex nature of drowning in this country. Drowning is not one dimensional. The numbers represent a wide range of age, ethnicities, activities and water environments,” says Mills.

Preventable fatalities in the 55 –64 year age group have gone up to 13 in 2019 compared to six in 2018, and the 65+ cohort has the highest number of fatalities for the second year in a row. (2018 – 17 2019 – 15)

“Older New Zealanders are staying active longer but it’s critical that everyone no matter what the age remembers the water safety code. Be prepared, watch out for yourself and each other, be aware of the dangers and know your limits,” says Mills.

Seven under-fives lost their lives in 2019 highlighting the importance of constant active adult supervision of small children around water at all times.

“There is no replacement for constant adult supervision. Babies and toddlers must be kept within arms-reach,” says Mills.

Also of note are significant increases in Land Based Fishing (12 up from six in 2018) and Underwater Diving (11 up from five in 2018) fatalities.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on New Zealand likely means an increase in unemployment in the short term, and this could mean increasing numbers of people looking for alternative ways to put food on the table – such as fishing and diving.

“This pressure can result in unnecessary risk taking and the potential cost is one no family wants to bear. It’s so important fishers and divers make wise decisions and follow best practice when it comes to water safety so they come home to their families” says Mills.

Studies from overseas also suggest possible respiratory health issues as a result of COVID-19 could further impact on underwater diving drownings. This underlines the importance of getting a health check from your doctor before returning to diving after a long break or an illness.

Powered Boating fatalities have also increased from two in 2018 to 12 in 2019. Lifejackets remain critical for boaties, alongside two forms of waterproof communications. While there is generally high compliance across New Zealand in over a third of the 12 powered boating fatalities in 2019 lifejackets were either not available, or not worn correctly.

“This goes to the heart of the lifejacket message. They are no good to you if they are on the boat and not worn when something happens, and an old lifejacket or one that doesn’t fit, will not save your life” says Mills.

While restrictions on international travel due to COVID-19 could be a boon for local tourism it also means increased drowning risk for people recreating in unfamiliar aquatic environments – particularly Aucklanders.

“Analysis of the historical drowning data shows of the Auckland residents involved in fatal drowning incidents 38 percent were outside the Auckland region. This shows how critical it is to get local knowledge about local conditions and risks” says Jonty Mills.

*Preventable drowning fatalities are those where water safety sector intervention could have had an influence (for example where the victim was boating, swimming, diving) while non-preventable include events such as suicides, homicides and vehicle accidents (where water safety education and activity would not have prevented the death).

** Hospitalisations are non-fatal drownings that result in a stay in hospital of 24 hours or longer

***Drowning data is sourced from Water Safety New Zealand’s DrownBaseTM and the figures provided are provisional as at 2/09/20