Respect for water paramount to preventing drownings

An Otago University professor who specialises in Māori water safety research says fatal drownings can be prevented if people have a greater understanding of respect for the water.

“It comes down to respect for the water and understanding what we actually mean when we say that,” says Dr Chanel Phillips of Ngāti Hine and Ngāpuhi who is an Associate Professor of Māori Physical Education at The University of Otago.

"For Māori we know it as respecting te mana ō te wai. Not drinking alcohol when out on the water is one level of respect, but there's more to it, like watching our children, having the right gear, knowing about the waters that we are going into.

This comes after 14 preventable drownings were recorded during this recent holiday period (24 December 2021 to 6.00 am 5 January 2022) – The highest in the past five years.

Water Safety New Zealand's Chief Executive, Daniel Gerrard said: "This is a national tragedy. Every preventable death is devasting to a family/whanau and the community. It has been an exceptionally busy time for our frontline rescue services, Surf Life Saving NZ and Coastguard NZ, which indicates that the toll could have been much worse. We are fortunate to have such dedicated volunteers helping keep Kiwis and visitors safe in, on or around the water."

Dr Phillips acknowledges the impact that lockdown may have played in these unprecedented numbers, but in a deeper sense than simply families and individuals rushing out to enjoy the water after being cooped up indoors for such a long time.

"There is that but I'm also thinking of the education around water safety and how many of our tamariki may have missed out on important information leading up these summer holidays, because of lockdown."

The statistics

Six rivers accounted for 43 per cent of the 2021/2022 drowning deaths over the holiday period. The five-year average for River drowning fatalities in the holiday period is one. Half of the river drowning deaths (three) over the 2021/2022 holiday period were aged 25-34.

Four beaches accounted for 29 per cent of the 2021/2022 drowning deaths over the holiday period. The five-year average for beach drowning fatalities in the holiday period is two.

All but one of the 2021/2022 holiday period drowning fatalities occurred in the North Island (93 per cent), similar to previous years where an average of one drowning fatality occurs in the South Island per holiday period.