Fears over lack of water safety education as summer looms

There are growing concerns around the lack of water safety education in New Zealand as the summer season approaches. 

With 61 people having died this year in preventable drownings, Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) chief executive Jonty Mills says even one preventable drowning is one too many. 

"We take it personally because we know that about 85-90 percent of all drownings are preventable," he told RadioLIVE on Monday. 

"We want everyone to enjoy the water - it's part of who we are as Kiwis, but they do call it the silly season for a reason and it's probably quite a good analogy unfortunately."

Drowning is the leading cause of recreational death, according to WSNZ. It's the second highest cause of death by unintentional injury for people aged 1-24, and the third highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand.

The country's drowning rate per 100,000 people is also twice that of Australia and four times that of the UK, and over the past 10 years the cost of drowning deaths and injuries is around $4.79 billion.

Each year around 107 people die in New Zealand as a result of drownings, and statistics from WSNZ indicate that a further 40 people are expected to lose their lives before the end of this year, if the current trend continues. 

New Zealand's high drowning rate comes down to lack of education, says Mr Mills. He believes there needs to be more aquatic education available for Kiwi kids at school. 

"I think it should be the right of every Kiwi kid to come out of the education system with a basic foundation of water safety."

He said the New Zealand Council of Educational Research surveyed New Zealand schools in 2016 and found that only a quarter were delivering a minimal level of aquatic education.

"That's not the schools' fault - there are a lot of pressures on them these days. But what we do know is there are more and more kids coming out of the education system who simply can't float and that's a real concern for our long-term drowning prevention."

Another issue flagged by Mr Mills is New Zealand's increasing diversity, with high immigration in Auckland. People immigrating to New Zealand might not come from aquatic backgrounds, he says, and might not be familiar with the conditions. 

"The water is our playground but it's also quite treacherous and unforgiving."

When it comes to educating Kiwi kids on water safety, Mr Mills pointed to Water Skills for Life, WSNZ's national standard for aquatic education for people aged 5-15. 

The programme was developed off the back of international research, best practice and water safety sector expertise, and currently reaches around 200,000 Kiwi kids, says Mr Mills. It's also backed by The Warehouse through a partnership announced last year

The programme is made up of seven skill sets consisting of 21 in-water skills and six water safety awareness related skills. An adapted course for disabled young people of any age also includes training for parents and caregivers. 

Mr Mills also emphasised the importance of life jackets for Kiwis taking to the water this summer. He said WSNZ is a strong advocate for the compulsory wearing of life jackets on all recreational vessels no matter the circumstances. 

Auckland Council's life jacket rules:

  • You must carry a suitable lifejacket for every person on board your vessel
  • If your boat is 6m or smaller, everyone on board must wear their lifejacket unless the skipper says it is safe to remove it
  • Lifejackets must be worn on all vessels in times of increased risk

You can read more about bylaws around the country here.


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