Drowning prevention: A global conversation

Drowning is the silent epidemic, claiming an estimated 360,000 lives worldwide every year. So when the RNLI's fledgling International Team began receiving requests for assistance and advice from organisations around the world, they leapt at the opportunity to start a global conversation.

Drowning prevention: A global conversation

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

'The department was getting a lot of requests for training and capacity building from all over the world,' says Alex Poole, RNLI International Coordinator.

'We didn’t have the capacity at the time to go to these countries and deliver the training that they needed, so we brought as many people as possible to RNLI Headquarters to use the facilities here. That's how our Future Leaders in Lifesaving course began.'

The benefits a world-leading rescue organisation like the RNLI could bring to at-risk groups in communities from Bangladesh to Brazil were clear. But over the years, the team has also learned lifesaving lessons from the trainees.

'The candidates are all experienced in some areas,' Alex says, 'so we don't treat them as students. We’ve had search and rescue professionals with over 20 years' experience, who know just as much as we do in certain aspects. We're there to give them the resources they need and fill the gaps in their expertise.

'Many of our candidates experience similar challenges, so they're able to relate to one another. What was interesting is that beyond what we could give them, they began to connect with one another through a Facebook group - which has over 100 members now - and on WhatsApp and Skype, bringing together learning from around the world. So what started as a training programme has become an active, living network of lifesavers able to find solutions together.

'After last year’s course, we also piloted a very successful mentoring scheme, which matches candidates with RNLI staff members depending on their needs. So lots of different channels are available and, more importantly, being used to help save lives around the world.'

Meet the future: Dan, Cathy and Shukuru

Dan Navarro, Mindanao, Philippines

Dan Navarro attended the RNLI's Future Leaders programme in 2012. As part of the course, candidates were presented with a pile of junk and challenged to come up with a rescue or training aid. What they pulled together - a 'thrown-away' throw bag - would inspire Dan on his return home.

Knowing local organisations didn't have the funds to import throw bags, which retail at around £35 in the UK, Dan made it his mission to find a way to construct them at a fraction of the cost. Using locally sourced materials and manpower, he was able to produce the bags for just £4.02!

Thanks to Dan's determination, lifesavers from across the country are now equipped with this basic but vital rescue tool. And in a country with eight drowning deaths every day - where floods regularly destroy homes, livelihoods and lives - it's been invaluable.

Using Dan's guidelines, former RNLI Lifeguard Manager and Trainer Barry Heathfield put together a simple photo guide, making it available as a free, open-source publication.

Barry was optimistic about the impact that simple, shared solutions can have in a short space of time: ‘When you cut back to the basics of how to save a life, doing things in a really hands-on way, it’s a very rewarding way to work.’

Cathy Cronje, Tofo, Mozambique

'This training has been invaluable,' says Cathy Cronje, an instructor with Nemos Pequenos (Little Nemos) and candidate at Future Leaders in Zanzibar in 2014. 'The RNLI has developed a remarkably simple step-by-step guide so children master basic swimming skills in 12 lessons.'

Mozambique has one of the highest rates of childhood drowning in the world. More than half of the population is under 18, and an estimated 45% of local jobs require people to work on, in or beside the water.

In 2011, marine conservation charity Marine Megafauna Foundation was shocked to discover that as many as four people can die every day off the local beach at Tofo in Imhambane Province. They decided to act.

'I lost my father to drowning, and so did one of our instructors. So drowning prevention is something that's very personal to us,' Cathy explains.

Nemos Pequenos, Marine Megafauna Foundation’s education programme, works to end the horror of childhood drowning and help ensure Mozambican communities can build sustainable livelihoods for the future. It does this through swimming, sea safety and marine conservation education.

A common local misconception is that there are monsters in the sea that take the children. With the help of Cathy and the other Nemos Pequenos instructors, children in the area are overcoming their fears, while learning how to love and protect the ocean and all that lives in it.

'Teaching someone to swim is the ultimate goal,' Cathy explains, 'but as an individual or small team, one can only teach so many children.

'By educating a larger number of people about the dangers involved with water, including how to avoid getting into a dangerous situation and what to do in an emergency, more lives can be saved. We also aim to take these valuable water safety lessons to various communities including parents, fishermen, and people working near water in general.

'Since I left Zanzibar I have been following the work the candidates have been doing via the Facebook group. And wow, it just goes to show how much of a difference this training is making all over Africa.

'This is a testament to the RNLI for a genius concept and excellent training. It is evident that investing in education is key to success. Asante sana [thank you very much] to the RNLI for hosting a brilliant programme!'

Shukuru Lugawa, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Poorly equipped fishing vessels and under-regulated maritime transport can have disastrous consequences. The world's eyes turned to Tanzania on 10 September 2011, when the MV Spice Islander I, an overcrowded ferry carrying over 2,000 passengers, sank off the coast of Zanzibar. Although early estimates put the death toll at around 200, a report published by the Tanzanian government in January 2012 claimed that over 1,500 people were killed.

Working on charter boats for 7 years, Shukuru Lugawa recognised the need for change. 'Our sailing boat crews get called to help in so many incidents,' he says. 'I saw a boat sink in front of me. There were four people clinging to the mast without lifejackets. I see the problem and want to make a difference.'

2016 was an amazing year for Shukuru. He helped set up Tanzania Sea Rescue, the country's only voluntary lifeboat service, from scratch - and attended the RNLI Future Leaders course in Poole, Dorset, to share his lifesaving knowledge. 'The government has some boats but not enough in the places that we need,' Shukuru explains, 'so we have made a team of 20 volunteers and 4 leaders.

'People are scared of the water, and anybody who is scared needs somebody to encourage them. I think this is my time to teach them.'

Looking far ahead

In just 5 short but productive years, the RNLI's Future Leaders in Lifesaving programme has trained over 100 delegates from 30 countries, bringing together an incredible network of like-minded people and organisations from the global drowning prevention community.

In September, Shukuru will be returning to Poole alongside a new group of international lifesavers to attend this year’s programme. We’re proud to facilitate such a wide-reaching conversation, and thrilled to find this common value in lifesavers from all around the world.

In an increasingly connected world, something as simple as communication and collaboration can and does save lives. And that's a conversation worth having.

Visit our international pages to learn more about the global drowning problem and how we're helping communities most at risk to implement their own solutions.