Lifesavers warn of risky summer despite drowning drop

A scorching summer mixed with poor post-pandemic swimming skills has lifesaving groups fearing a spike in drownings despite a recent drop in the number of deaths.

The 2023 National Drowning Report showed 281 people died from drowning in Australian waterways and swimming pools in 2022/23, slightly up on the 10-year-average but well down from the previous year’s 339 drownings.

The most recent figures indicated a return to a drowning toll that was closer to pre-pandemic levels, Surf Life Saving Australia chief executive Adam Weir said.

“During the pandemic, there was a lot of encouragement around domestic tourism which showed through in some of the drowning figures as people went to unpatrolled locations,” he said.

“There’s been a return to a bit more normalcy in life.”

Drownings among children and young people have decreased over the past year compared to the 10-year-average because of changes to pool-fencing regulations and water-safety messages directed at the carers of young children.

The Royal Life Saving Society report said there had been a 33 per cent decrease in drownings in children aged four or under compared to the 10-year average and a 35 per cent fall in deaths among those aged five to 14.

While those figures are positive, Mr Weir expects the effects of lockdowns stopping children from learning to swim will play out over the next couple of years.

That concern is shared by Royal Life Saving Society chief executive Justin Scarr, who pointed to declining swimming and water-safety skills among children and adults.

“The impacts of missed lessons throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will have generational impacts on safety if left unaddressed,” he said.

Lifesaving groups are worried a predicted hot summer because of developing El Nino conditions could lead to a spike in drownings, particularly among older adults.

Adults aged 45 years or older represented 57 per cent of 2022/23 drowning deaths, which were above the 10-year average for all age groups except those aged 65 to 74.

The increase in drownings among the age group was driven by higher numbers of deaths related to underlying medical conditions, bystander-rescuer drownings and falls into water.

“Overestimating their own abilities in and around the water, unfortunately, can have tragic outcomes,” Mr Weir said.

The effects of an ageing population, which has led to more older Australians with large amounts of recreation time, and decreased swimming fitness have contributed to the rising number of drownings.

Rivers and beaches were the two most common places where drownings occurred, accounting for a combined 151 fatalities in the year.

More than a quarter of the drownings occurred in the summer months of December and January.

NSW recorded the most drownings, with 107 deaths over the past year, while the ACT had no fatalities.


William Ton
(Australian Associated Press)


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