Awareness September 19, 2022
Don’t take chances with children and water
Touch your thumb to your chin and your index finger to your nose: that distance, just a few centimetres, represents the shallow depth of water in which a child can drown. And all it takes is just a few minutes of no supervision by a responsible adult.
“Drowning can happen in a just a minute or two. It’s common for us as parents to ask an older child to watch a younger one in the water, but we must remain ever vigilant ourselves and never leave a child unattended in and around water,” says Petro Jonker, ER24 Learning and Development Facilitator for the central region.
About 1,450 people, mostly males, drown in South Africa every year, according to the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), based on the average for the last six years.
Rushing back into the water
The easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions earlier this year led to an increase in the number of drownings, as more people flocked to the beaches, says the NSRI’s Dr Jill Fortuin-Abrahams, executive director for drowning prevention. The 2022 rains around the country have also meant that many dams and rivers are full and more people are heading out to swim.
“It’s a major concern that almost 1,500 people – an enormous number – drown every year in South Africa, especially because most of these deaths are actually preventable,” she says. “The majority of these deaths occur to children under 14 years of age, with the largest group within those deaths being from birth to four years, which is very alarming.”
Fortuin-Abrahams notes that the highest number of drowning incidents in the country occurs in KwaZulu-Natal, followed by the Eastern Cape and then Gauteng. Most people in South Africa drown, not in the ocean, but in fresh water, she says – be it a swimming pool, a river, a dam, a bath or even a bucket of water.
Lack of supervision and use of alcohol
The main reason for children drowning is that they have been left unsupervised around water and that they are unable to swim.
“When most people think about water safety, they think of lifeguards, but nobody is really focussed on the small things in and around the home,” says Fortuin-Abrahams. “It’s so easy to do the washing and leave a bucket of water unattended… and when you turn around, your child has fallen into the bucket. It’s very easy for these things to happen. It’s silent, extremely quick and can happen to anybody.”
A very common factor in drowning incidents among adults in South Africa is substance abuse, be it alcohol, drug or prescription medication, says Jonker. Alcohol impairs one’s judgement and concentration, significantly increasing the chances of drowning and not being able to respond quickly enough to a water emergency.
Parents and caregivers should ensure that children are wearing appropriate swimming/floating devices and continue to supervise them closely. Swimming pools must also be safely cordoned off.
Rip tides in the ocean and strong river current are also compounding factors in drowning incidents. “A big problem is someone else going into the current or rip to help the one in trouble, and then getting into difficulties themselves,” says Marsane Botha, ER24 Learning and Development Facilitator for the coastal region. “This is why on swimming beaches there are flagged-off areas under the watch of the lifeguards that are deemed safer. And we should always swim between these flags.”
Diving into water can also lead to problems. “Misjudging water-depth is another reason for people drowning, when they hit their heads on the bottom of a pool or on a rock in the ocean and injure their spines. The people swimming with them don’t realise that they’re not surfacing until it is too late,” says Botha. She says Boxing Day and New Year’s Day are logistical nightmares for medical emergency crews in areas like Camps Bay, where it can take hours to get to a hospital due to the congested traffic.
Be safer this summer by following these tips.
Waterwise safety tips
- Close supervision: Never leave children alone and unattended around water, not even for a minute. Don’t leave buckets of water or other liquid into which a child could fall. If it is a pool area, dam, river or the ocean, make sure an adult is present, that he or she is capable of swimming themselves and is 100% focussed on the swimmers – not distracted by their mobile phones or working, with ‘one eye on the kids’.
- Safeguard water bodies: Swimming pools should have effective barrier devices such as child-safe pool covers and/or gates.
- Lifeguards: Swim only at public pools and beaches where there are lifeguards.
- Never swim while intoxicated.
- Teach swimming, water safety and safe rescue skills.