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One life lost every 85 seconds: How can we break the global drowning cycle?

In too many countries, drowning is the leading killer of children. It affects the poorest in our world first and worst: people caught in the rhythms of everyday life - washing, cooking, playing.

One life lost every 85 seconds: How can we break the global drowning cycle?

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

Every day, people are drowning for want of the simplest things:

  • water from a tap
  • a swim survival lesson
  • a home that doesn't flood.

In the face of such staggering numbers, it is right to feel angry - but we shouldn't feel hopeless. Many of the solutions are simple, sustainable and can be scaled up at a reasonably low cost.

The RNLI is joining drowning prevention partners from across the world, helping countries with some of the highest drowning rates to implement these solutions themselves.

Meet three of the many courageous people who are making a difference in their own communities.

Search and rescue

Shukuru Lugawa

Volunteer Helm, Tanzania Sea Rescue, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

'I see the problem and want to make a difference'

Last July, Shukuru helped start Tanzania's only voluntary lifeboat service from scratch, learning alongside two RNLI trainers in Dar es Salaam.

The following month, he attended the Future Leaders in Lifesaving programme at RNLI College, where candidates share knowledge to develop their own lifesaving organisations.

Working on tourist sailing boats for 7 years, Shukuru's seen more than enough to know the desperate need for change.

'Our sailing boat crews get called to help in so many incidents. I saw a boat sink in front of me. There were four people clinging to the mast without lifejackets. We also need to help local fishermen to protect themselves better with safety equipment and education. Everything has a beginning. I see the problem and want to make a difference.'

This really is just the beginning. The day we took this photo of Shukuru in August last year, Tanzania Sea Rescue's first lifeboat was arriving in Dar es Salaam from the Safe Waters Foundation.

And on 19 October, Tanzania Sea Rescue had their first shout to a jahazi (offshore trading dhow) with a sick sailor onboard. The waves and tide prevented the crew of the jahazi from making a safe landing so Tanzania Sea Rescue volunteers came alongside and transferred the sick sailor and a shipmate onto the lifeboat. Once back at the lifeboat station, a shore volunteer then helped with their safe transfer to the hospital.

'We felt really proud,' says Shukuru. 'We rescued the sailor and got him to safety.'

Safety education and lifeguarding

Mohammad Shaifullah Sefat

Education Supervisor and Lifeguard, SeaSafe, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

'The teachers know students who have drowned'

The RNLI has been working with the SeaSafe Team at Cox's Bazar since 2012, providing advice and training to set up a sustainable safety and education service.

'There are a lot of drowning problems in Bangladesh. Most people use the water every day, for cooking, washing their clothes ... And rainy season here creates hazards because we have many rivers. They fill up, there's water everywhere and children fall in and drown very near their homes.

'So in schools, we use flashcards with pictures to explain easily to children how to stay safe: they show how to reach a casualty in the water using a stick, how to check the water, not to swim alone ... The teachers know students who have drowned, so they are very happy that we are helping to keep their students safe.

'On the beach most people get into trouble because they've never come to Cox's Bazar before. There are lots of strong currents here, but they don't know which is the good place to swim and which is dangerous. Now our lifeguards can communicate with them before they get into the water.'

Aquatic survival

Siti Hai Simai

Swimming Teacher, The Panje Project, Nungwi, Zanzibar

'I don't want to stand by any longer'

'Water is our life. Every day, people travel from here to reach local islands using dhows. They're always badly overcrowded. Every time I've made the journey I've felt scared - I knew I wouldn't survive if the dhow started to sink. Without lifejackets, and full of passengers who cannot swim, boats that capsize - as I have known them do near Tumbatu - cause people to drown. Too many people drown.

'Growing up by the sea in Zanzibar I used to play in the water with my brother, but there was never an apportunity to learn how to swim. Girls in Zanzibar are always told there are better things they should be doing with their time.

'But last year I decided to learn how to swim. After 24 years I'd had enough. It isn't fair that boys are taught to be safe, and not girls.

'So I attended a swimming course by The Panje Project, supported by the RNLI. I had one aim: to learn to swim so I could save myself and rescue other villagers in difficulty in the water. Too many times I have seen this happen; I don't want to stand by any longer.

'We learned how to float, swim and rescue others using sticks, jerry containers and floats. I feel powerful and free. I want other girls to feel that way. Now I can swim I want to share these skills with girls across my village, my island, so that they can be safe too. I know that they will only be taught if I teach them. So now, I'm learning how to be a swimming teacher.

'Everyone in Zanzibar deserves the opportunity to be safe in the water; every boy and every girl.'

So what's next?

The RNLI has been working with partners to put 15 different interventions to the test - including Aquatic Survival, Lifeguarding and Flood Rescue. By March this year, training guides and manuals will be complete. We'll be rolling the programmes out to help more courageous people like Shukuru, Sefat and Siti take on the drowning problems that affect their communities.

We're keeping a wider focus too, supporting governments and other influential groups to make drowning the global priority it deserves to be. We will share more with you over the coming year.

What can you do?

Be courageous: Join us as we raise awareness of this silent epidemic.