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NZ’s wake-up call: Drowning increases in 2022

4 min read
drowning stats

The number of preventable drownings in 2022 has already surpassed 2021 figures, statistics from Water Safety New Zealand show.

There have been 80 preventable drowning fatalities for the year to 9 December 2022, up from 75 for the same time period last year. Compared to this, there were a total of 90 drowning deaths for all of 2021, which Water Safety NZ said was the worst year for drowning fatalities since 2011, when there were 91 drowning deaths.

“Our drowning toll is something every New Zealander should see as a national disgrace and one we all have a responsibility to address. We all need to make better decisions around water,” Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Daniel Gerrard said. Drowning remains the leading cause of recreational death in New Zealand and the third-highest cause of accidental death.

According to Water Safety New Zealand’s drowning reports, there were a total of 797 preventable drowning deaths within New Zealand for the 10-year period from 1 January 2012 to 31 December 2021.

The reports categorise drownings according to the nature of the incident: preventable fatality or hospitalisation, age, gender, and ethnicity of the victim and nature, and cause of the incident, including activity and environment and a host of other factors.

“This data helps us better understand New Zealand’s drowning problem – the risk factors and groups most at risk of drowning,” said Gerrard.

“It will also inform our future funding decisions and work to help ensure all New Zealanders have the knowledge required to safely connect with and enjoy the water.”

drowning stats

Of the drowning deaths so far in 2022, 19 occurred while swimming, while 14 occurred from a powered boat over four metres. Twenty-one deaths occurred at a beach, while 16 were in rivers.

The 65+ age category was most represented among those who died, with 20 drownings, up from 17 in 2021. This was followed by the 25–44 and 55–64 groups, each with 16 drowning fatalities.

Males overwhelmingly made up the majority of drownings, at 82.5% of all drownings.

New Zealand Europeans were the most represented ethnicity, with 33 drowning fatalities in 2022, up from 22 in 2021. Māori were the next most represented, at 18, down from 23 last year.

By region, Northland had the most drowning fatalities at 16, followed by Auckland at 15 and the Waikato at 10. January saw the most drownings of the year, with 24.

“The challenge here is significant and is why we need others to help,” Gerrard said.

“The number of people drowning is a wake-up call telling us that the way that we interact with water needs to change. It’s a shared responsibility to reduce our drowning rate. The New Zealand Water Safety sector is taking this seriously, but so must all Kiwis who are spending time in and around water.

Ultimately, we all need to make better decisions to ensure that ourselves, our whanau, and our friends are safe around water.”

Gerrard said that more work can be done at the regulatory level to prevent drowning in certain circumstances.

He said in order to avoid a repeat of 2021’s drowning statistics, Water Safety New Zealand has called on the Government to make urgent changes to regulations requiring everyone on small boats to wear a life jacket.

drowning stats

“Water Safety New Zealand has requested minister of transport Michael Wood to urgently implement a national standard for life jacket use before this summer,” he said.

“It could be as simple as requiring all persons on recreational vessels of six metres or less in length to wear a personal flotation device at all times.”

Of the 90 drowning fatalities in 2021, 19 were boating-related, and five-year figures reveal that two-thirds of all small-boat drownings were of people not wearing life jackets.

Maritime NZ stats show 22 people died last year in incidents involving a variety of recreational marine craft.

Of those, 10 were not wearing a life jacket, despite having one available to them.

Research from market research firm Ipsos also found that more than a third of boaties said they did not wear life jackets every time they went out on the water.

Gerrard says the rules for life jackets simply aren’t clear enough.

“Currently, each skipper is legally required to carry a correctly-sized life jacket for each person on board with responsibility for their use in situations of heightened risk,” he said. “However, this regulation is subject to regional interpretation. Ten-year data confirm that 70% of fatal drownings involved boaties not wearing life jackets – fatalities preventable through an enforceable, national standard for life jacket use.”

Water Safety New Zealand is encouraging people to make better decisions around water by:

  • Staying within arm’s reach of all kids under five at any time when they are near water. In 2021, all the under five drowning deaths occurred outside the home and garden.
  • Taking someone with you and keeping an eye on each other when you are spending time in or near water. In 2021, 44% of drowning fatalities occurred when the person was alone.
  • Checking the weather conditions and wearing a life jacket at all times when out on a boat. In 2021, 85% of powered boating drowning deaths occurred on boats smaller than six metres.
  • Wearing a life jacket when fishing from the shore in case something goes wrong. In 2021, almost all land-based fishing drowning deaths were angling.

“Remember the water safety code. Be prepared, watch out for yourself and each other, be aware of the dangers, and know your limits,” Gerard said.

“While we all cherish our relationship with water, these tragedies could and should not happen and are a tragic reminder of the importance of being cautious around water.”    

Images by Getty Images

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