New Zealand's drowning statistics are getting worse, not better

The number of preventable fatal drownings around the country has increased in the last five years a sobering fact for those working hard to save lives.
Thats the real tragedy of it, said New Zealand Surf Life Saving (NZSLS) chief executive Paul Dalton.

Were not really getting the problem solved ... we need to do something else to turn the tide, if you like, of the trend.

NZSLSs National Beach and Coastal Safety Report, released on Monday, analysed the data from the last year and the last decade. It found fatal drownings in coastal zones tidal waters, like estuaries, harbours, marinas, in the ocean up to 1km offshore, and inland up to five times the width of the inlet or river increased by 18 per cent over the last five years when compared to the previous five years.

Men have died from drowning at a higher rate than women in the last decade.

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The average drowning rate went from 0.74 per 100,000 people in the five-year period from 2010 to 2015, to 0.83 per 100,000 people between 2015 and 2020. In this period, there was an average of 39 fatal drownings per year.

The report also found the majority of drownings in the last 10 years occurred on surf beaches (38 per cent), with swimming, boating and falling the three greatest risk activities. Out of all the regions, Northland had the highest fatal drowning rate 3.04 deaths per 100,000, which is nearly five times greater than Auckland.

Dalton said the data for Northland encompassed those who holiday there and who don't know the conditions in the water.

Two groups were overrepresented in the data from this report men and Pasifika. Mori were close behind.

In the last 10 years, 360 people have died as a result of drowning in a coastal area, of those 87 per cent were men, 13 per cent were women.

Dalton said, unfortunately, these statistics were pretty stable, and a reflection of peoples attitudes to water safety.

[Men] tend to overestimate [their] ability and underestimate the risk considerably compared to females.

There's less risk taking with females, and they have a better sense of what they're capable of.

Using himself as an example, Dalton explained how his memory of his swimming ability isnt likely the reality.

Looking more generically, he said it's not usually deliberate risk taking, but more inadvertent it could be as simple as going fishing without a life jacket or jumping off a waterfall youve frequented over the years.

A lot of that risk stuff you can mitigate by packing safety equipment," Dalton said. Just simple basic things that can make a huge difference if things go wrong.

The report also found the Pasifika community had the highest fatal drowning rate of the last decade, with 1.31 deaths per 100,000 people. Mori followed closely behind with 1.13 deaths per 100,000 people, and 0.91 deaths per 100,000 for other ethnicities.

In one year between 2019 and 2020 fatal drownings within the Pasifika community dropped below the 10-year average to 0.79 per 100,000, while all other ethnicities exceeded their respective averages.

Dalton said these figures mainly reflect exposure to coastal environments.

Dr Chanel Phillips a Mori physical education and health lecturer from the University of Otago, who is Ngti Hine and Ngpuhi, agreed the higher fatal drowning rates among Mori and Pasifika were due to more exposure, but this was just one reason.

We no longer have access to traditional knowledge or tikanga. [Higher fatal drowning rates] can stem from a disconnection to the water or a changed relationship.

Phillips didn't find Pasifika and Mori overrepresentation in this data shocking It wasnt unexpected, she said but the fact that it is increasing was alarming.

Now is the time, we have to do something, and we must do better.

Dr Chanel Phillips from the University of Otago's School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences says an increase in fatal drownings within Mori and Pasifika communities is alarming.

More education needed​

The data shows there is a need for additional education in this space, Dalton said.

Theres only so much you can do as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff ... we really need a big fence at the top.

Additional education resources are needed to ensure people are making better decisions at those crucial moments before jumping off a waterfall or swimming alone in the open ocean, for example.

[It] really comes back to that real conversation you [have] with yourself before you go and do something Have I understood all the risks that are out there and do I really know my own capabilities?

[Its about] those life or death decisions that people dont appreciate are life or death, Dalton said.

A collaborative approach is needed to ensure water safety messages are reaching all New Zealanders and are actually being heard.

The messages aren't getting through or being delivered in the right way.

Dalton said a European solution wont necessarily work, so it was important community groups work together to create an appropriate solution.

The new Water Safety Sector Strategy 2025, titled Wai ora Aotearoa: Navigating to a safer future, was released by Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) last week. The sector-wide approach works to ensure everyone connects to and enjoys the water safely.

WSNZ board chair Maurice Kidd said this sector alignment would ensure maximum buy-in to the vision and mission.

There has been strong collaboration during the development of this strategy. We now need to continue to work constructively together to implement, monitor and evaluate our action plan, so that we reach our vision Everyone connects to and enjoys the water safely, Kidd said.

Phillips evidence-based model, called Wai Puna, underpins the strategy. It is focused on three key pillars whakapapa: attitudes and beliefs, mtauranga: knowledge, and tikanga: behaviour.

Water safety is not merely about teaching water skills alone, Philips said.

The sector-wide approach indicates a big cultural shift, Phillips said, and for it to be underpinned by a Mori framework was pretty incredible.

But before strategies and frameworks can enact change, the high rates of fatalities need to become known.

"Part of the solution is really highlighting the problem so that people can talk about it and be aware of it, Dalton said.

We don't want this stuff just to be in a computer somewhere we really need it out there so people talk ... Its that simple.


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