Four million people drowned in a decade, as experts push for United Nations' action

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Durban, South Africa: Four million people have fatally drowned in the past decade yet not one of the 26,000 resolutions by the United Nations directly addresses this "silent" killer.

In an impassioned call to the World Conference on Drowning Prevention in Durban on Wednesday, Gemma May, the international advocacy manager from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in Britain called on delegates to support a push for the first United Nations' declaration on drowning.

Drowning only received a "passing reference" in the UN's goal of eliminating child injuries by 2030.

Drowning only received a "passing reference" in the UN's goal of eliminating child injuries by 2030.Credit: Richard Giliberto

She said in the United Nations' history, drowning had not been mentioned in any resolution other than a "passing reference" in the UN's goal of eliminating child injuries by 2030. Although it is considered a preventable cause of death or injury, drowning is not mentioned in the UN goal to eliminate preventable deaths of children under five by 2030.

Significant progress had been made, but it was not enough, with "too many wasted lives and avoidable deaths", Ms May said.

"Where is the drowning community? We need to get out of our box and start connecting with policymakers at the very highest levels," she said.

RNLI is supporting a new and growing coalition of countries – including Bangladesh, Fiji, Vietnam, Thailand, Ireland and Denmark – that is lobbying for a UN resolution next year that recognises the scale of the problem, and the need for adequate resources.

The World Health Organisation's head of injury prevention, Dr David Meddings, said the United Nations’ goal of ending preventable deaths among babies and children under five would fail without “massively scaling up drowning prevention”.

He urged delegates to consider ways to work across sectors, for example, with disaster relief groups. UNICEF, for instance, has called for children and students in Vietnam to be taught swim survival skills to protect them during the flood season.

Of the 322,000 people who fatally drowned in 2016, more than 50 per cent were children aged under 15 years, according to the most recent WHO figures. More than 90 per cent of fatal drownings occur in low- to middle-income countries.

In some countries in Africa, the rate of drownings is about 13.1 per 100,000 compared with 1.1 per 100,000 in Australia. Across the world, drowning kills 126, 831 children under 15 years, second only to meningitis that kills 134,477 children.

In contrast to affluent countries such as Australia, drowning is a disease of poverty, the conference heard.

The vast majority of children who drown do so as they go about their everyday lives: falling into a watery ditch and fatally drowning is common among school children in Cambodia, Bangladesh and other countries.

Despite a fall in the rate from 360, 000 fatal drownings in 2015, experts believe the real toll is far greater. About 80 countries don’t keep figures or they are inaccurate.

“The [322,000] figure was an estimate, and a conservative one at that,” said Dr Meddings.

The figures also don’t include those who fatally drown in floods or water transport disasters, for instance.

In Bangladesh where an estimated 10,000 children under five fatally drowned in 2016 – about 11.7 per 100,000 – many people believed these deaths were “God's will,” said Dr Aminur Rahman, the director of the International Drowning Research Centre in Bangladesh.

“No one can stop it. It was fate,” families told him.

Yet research found 80 per cent of children drowned in a ditch, bucket or pond, and 80 per cent within 20 metres of home.

Because 60 per cent of children were killed between 9am and 1pm when their parents were preoccupied with work, a free creche program was offered in 400 at-risk locations. Older children were given swim safe lessons, teaching them basic survival techniques.

The free creches reduced drowning by 80 per cent, and the SwimSafe program reduced drownings by 72 per cent.

"This is the vaccine," Dr Meddings said.

Although Australia is a leader in drowning prevention in the region, government representatives were yet to join the push for a resolution.

Justin Scarr, the chief executive of Royal Life Saving Australia and chair of the Drowning Prevention Committee with the International Life Saving Federation said the case for Australian support for a UN resolution was compelling.

"Community support for water safety is widespread," Mr Scarr said. "Our neighbours have very high rates of drowning and need our leadership and assistance."

Mr Scarr said drowning looked very different in places like Vietnam, India and Bangladesh. "It is less about rips and lifeguards, beaches and swimming pools, and mostly vulnerable children drowning in ditches and ponds used for irrigation and livestock."

Lifesaving South Africa president Dhaya Sewduth also supported the call for a United Nation declaration on drowning.

"The problem is much bigger than we think it is, and it disproportionately affects the poorest in our community," he said.

Julie Power attended the World Conference on Drowning Prevention in Durban, South Africa, on a fellowship provided by the World Health Organisation in conjunction with the International Centre for Journalists.