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Children and drowning: Lifesaving lessons around the world

They say prevention is better than cure. This is certainly the case when it comes to tackling the global drowning problem. The RNLI's drowning prevention work is helping communities at home and abroad save more lives by reaching children before they reach the water.

Girls learning to swim on the Aquatic Survival programme in Nungwi, Zanzibar

Photo: Mike Lavis

Children on Zanzibar take part in the swimming skills element of the Aquatic Survival programme

Learning how to swim is scary. Today, a young girl will put her head underwater for the first time and, just for a moment, she feels like running away. But she stays. Her instructor, Makami Simba Tano, is calm and encouraging. He dips down to her level and his steady gaze helps her stop shaking. With absolute trust, she lowers her face into the water. A few seconds later, she bursts through the surface, her deep breath part shock, part elation. She has overcome her fear.

While this particular moment took place in the shallow waters off Mkokotoni Beach in Zanzibar, the experience is universal to children around the globe.

Alarmingly, drowning is among the 10 leading causes of death of children and young people in every region of the world, with those under 5 most at risk. What's more, low- and middle-income countries, where daily life brings children into regular contact with open water hazards, account for a staggering 90% of all drowning deaths.

But prevention is possible. And evidence shows that teaching school-age children basic swimming skills plays a vital role. This is why the RNLI is focusing its international efforts in the places where its impact will be felt most.


Water safety education is critical in Ghana. Its densely populated capital city, Accra, suffers severe flooding every June. The country has a long Atlantic coastline and dozens of rivers and lakes including the 3,283-square-mile Lake Volta, which regularly claims the lives of child workers. 

Here, villages are often built near rivers, beaches or lakes. Communities rely upon open water for their livelihoods as well as for everyday activities such as washing dishes and bathing. But even simple tasks like collecting drinking water are high-risk when you can't swim. And they become even more perilous during periods of extreme weather and flooding.

The absence of affordable and accessible recreation facilities in Ghana means that beaches are increasingly used as playgrounds for children and drownings occur regularly.

While the statistics may be sobering, Felix Uzor, founder of Felix Fitness Foundation in Accra and RNLI Future Leaders in Lifesaving 2014 graduate, is determined that change is possible: 'The situation in Ghana is underreported,' he says, 'thus the need to set up this foundation to take children through anti-drowning and safety measures.'

Working with Felix and his team, the RNLI has helped roll out its Aquatic Survival programme to schools. In 2016, 708 school teachers were trained on how to deliver water safety messages and 18,461 children learned about water safety in the classroom.

One Class 4 pupil said: 'I had no knowledge of the water safety messages until Felix Foundation educated me. Before the lesson, I did not use a stick to check my path in waterways but I do so whenever it rains now. This protects me from falling into a hole or stepping on dangerous objects in the flooded water.' 

Before the lesson, I did not use a stick to check my path in waterways but I do so whenever it rains now
Class 4 student
Felix Fitness Foundation

The foundation also provides workshops for communities on how to protect their children from drowning and other water-related accidents. And last year they began training with government departments, fishermen, and fire brigades to facilitate the formation of Ghana's Ocean Rescue Team, which will work to reduce the rate of drowning along the Ghanaian coast.

Success so far:

  • In 2016, the Felix Fitness Foundation trained 708 school teachers in Ghana on how to deliver water safety messages and 18,461 children learned about water safety.

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Back at Mkokotoni Beach the young girl puts her face underwater for a second, third and fourth time, her growing confidence evidenced by a grin. In the face of an epidemic, one Tanzanian girl’s small victory may seem insignificant, but she is a vital part of the RNLI’s efforts to reduce global drowning.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania, formal swimming lessons are uncommon. Some adults see them as fun at the beach when children should be at school or helping their families with chores. But the RNLI and local partner The Panje Project are starting to win over communities they are working to help.

In Nungwi, on Zanzibar's northern tip, a team of local men and women have been trained as instructors. Since the project began in 2013, they have taught water safety and survival swimming to almost 4,000 children. 

I liked floating on my back
Panje Project student

Proudly overseeing the lessons is Instructor and Panje Project Coordinator Haji Ali Haji (26). 'The children come to the edge of the water and we give them water safety advice. Then we help them to overcome their fear of the water. We get them to hold hands in the water and then play some games and sport, which help them to feel more comfortable in the water.’

For Haji and his colleagues, each child that passes the course is a potential life saved within their tightly knit community. For the RNLI, Aquatic Survival in Zanzibar shows what can be done to help tackle the global drowning problem. The project may be small in scale at this stage, but the efforts of a dedicated few in a quiet corner of Zanzibar have the potential to save thousands of lives throughout the world.

Success so far:

  • Since 2013, The Panje Project has taught water safety and survival swimming to almost 4,000 children in Zanzibar.


Infectious childhood diseases have declined dramatically over the past 3 decades in Bangladesh. And while diarrhoea (a leading cause of death for children worldwide) is now responsible for only 2% of the deaths of children under 5, drowning currently accounts for a staggering 43% - in the Matlab area, this figure exceeds 60%.

Around 18,000 children under 18 drown every year in Bangladesh. One national survey found that 80% of drowning among children under 5 happened within 20m of the family home. And it's not difficult to see why. In many rural areas, deep ponds used for bathing, fishing and swimming sit next to each house.

Since 2012, we’ve been working with the Centre of Injury Prevention and Research (CIPRB) in Cox’s Bazar to develop Bangladesh’s first coastal lifeguarding service, SeaSafe.

The SeaSafe project in partnership with CIPRB now runs a full-time lifeguard service on three beaches, provides water safety education to local schools and communities, and teaches children to swim all within the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh.

In partnership with other NGOs, CIPRB developed the SwimSafe programme in 2005. To date, a total of 477,937 children aged 4 to 10 years have been trained in survival swimming lessons in 22 districts of Bangladesh.

Since October 2016, the SwimSafe programme originally developed by CIPRB has been incorporated as part of the SeaSafe project within Cox's Bazar. This new addition to the SeaSafe project aims to train 1,000 children in survival swimming skills each year.

Nineteen-year-old student Jeny is a trainee beach lifeguard and one of only two female swimming instructors in Cox's Bazar.

She says: 'In my village many accidents took place. Small children fell into the river or pond; some of them were unconscious and some of them even died.'

Jeny describes how play helps children learn: 'I teach the children swimming within 21 steps while they feel they are playing.

'After watching them learn to swim it gives me great satisfaction. I feel so good.'

Like the RNLI, Jeny and her fellow community swimming instructors are committed to saving lives. 'My first job in life was related to swimming,' she says. 'From the beginning I have been doing this work and until the end I want to do the same.'

After watching them learn to swim it gives me great satisfaction. I feel so good.
Swimming Instructor and Trainee Beach Lifeguard

Success so far:

  • Since 2015, 32,249 schoolchildren have attended water safety education lessons in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
  • Between July 2015 and March 2017, 196 people were rescued by the Cox's Bazar lifeguard service.
  • Since 2016, 567 children have been given swimming lessons as part of the SwimSafe programme in Cox's Bazar.

UK and Channel Islands

It may come as a surprise, but even in countries with large coastlines like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, most drowning happens inland. Whether in a bucket, bathtub, pond or pool, almost all water is a risk for drowning - especially where young children are concerned.

The recent death of 12-year-old Owen Jenkins at Beeston Weir, near Nottingham, is a tragedy and, sadly, one that is repeated throughout the UK. In 2015, 321 people accidentally drowned in the UK. Of that number, 135 died in inland water.

With approximately 7,723 miles of coastline around the UK, as well as more than 40,000 lakes and more than 80,000 miles of canals and rivers, it is vital that both adults and children understand the dangers of water.

The need for ongoing water safety education in all areas of the UK is clear. Although not related to its international namesake, Swim Safe - created by Swim England and the RNLI - shares its aims of keeping children safe in the water. It does this by teaching 7- to 14-year-olds to become confident open water swimmers.

The RNLI’s Swim Safe Project Manager Guy Botterill says: ‘Children love swimming outdoors, but swimming in the sea, rivers and lakes is more challenging than swimming in a pool, where most lessons take place.'

This year, Swim Safe is being offered in 20 locations, providing over 20,000 spaces for children - more than ever before. For the first time, there are sessions in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in Wales and England. There are also new inland locations for 2017 including Birmingham, London and Salford Quays.

The free, hour-long sessions are run by qualified swimming teachers and lifeguards, supported by a team of trained volunteers. The first 20 minutes cover land-based safety and then it's into the water for practical tuition with a swimming teacher.

For parents, Swim Safe offers peace of mind: 'I think the RNLI's Swim Safe scheme is absolutely fantastic,' says one parent. 'It not only gives the children confidence in the water, it gives us as parents the confidence that they can keep themselves and others safe in the water.'

Since Swim Safe started in 2013 with just one site in Bude, over 18,000 sessions have taken place across the UK and Channel Islands. In addition to public sessions, there are also Swim Safe sessions for schools. And the programme continues to grow from strength to strength - last year more than 7,000 children took part.

Today I've learnt about all the flags and what they mean and safety at the beach, so where you should go and what you should do if you're in danger.
Swim Safe participant

 Success so far:

To date, over 18,000 Swim Safe sessions have taken place across the UK and Channel Islands.

'With courage, nothing is impossible'

From its very inception, founder Sir William Hillary envisaged the RNLI as an outward-looking organisation that sought to save life from drowning, wherever people were from. An enormous task and one many would call impossible. But as the young girl from Mkokotoni Beach in Zanzibar now knows - it is possible.

And so did Sir William Hillary: 'With courage,' he said, 'nothing is impossible.'

Find out more about how the RNLI is helping communities overseas save more lives.