Where existing data is poor, we need research to understand a country’s drowning problem - and to design interventions to tackle it.

Getting accurate data on deaths by drowning is difficult. Low- and middle-income countries may not have strong reporting systems. And because people drown away from medical facilities, deaths are less likely to be reported than other injuries or diseases.

To reduce the risks, you have to understand them first.

You’ll find more about the research we’ve been carrying out on our country pages. Recent major projects we’ve worked on include:


Saving lives with a household survey on drowning

Bangladesh has one of the highest drowning rates in the world. Found in the central-south of the country where several rivers converge, the Barisal region is thought to suffer the country’s worst drowning rates.

In 2007 cyclone Sidr swept through Barisal, bringing heavy rains and a 6m storm surge. 3,363 people died.

Children playing on flood plains in Bangladesh

Photo: GMB Akash

Children playing on flood plains in Bangladesh

Project Bhasa (‘float’ in Bangali) will test the theory that coordinated responses - both at a national and regional/local level - will significantly reduce drowning nationally and, ultimately, globally. The experience and knowledge gained will help us develop similar plans in other parts of Bangladesh and the rest of the world.

A researcher’s view

In 2016, we worked with CIPRB and The George Institute for Global Health to carry out a large-scale household survey on drowning.

The work was long, tiring - and often harrowing. Researchers travelled to remote villages across the region, speaking to mothers, fathers, grandparents, community leaders… over the space of a few months they gathered information from more than 90,000 households.

Bhasa project researcher Bithi outside a home in Barisal, Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Before heading to university, Bithi became a researcher for the Bhasa project. She had almost drowned as a child - and wanted to give something back

What did we learn - and what can we do?

The results confirmed expectations about the drowning picture in Barisal, with the drowning death rate in children aged 1-4 shockingly high, at 262 deaths per 100,000 people. Over 20 times more children in the same age group were involved in a non-fatal drowning incident. For context, the wider drowning death rate in Bangladesh is 15.8 per 100,000.

We found that over half the people who drowned died in water normally used for bathing and washing. 

SwimSafe instructor training in a pond in Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI

SwimSafe instructor training in Bangladesh: the Bhasa project will roll out more of these lessons in Barisal.

The findings urge us to focus our efforts in children. The vast majority of incidents - both fatal and non-fatal - occurred during the working day (between 8am and 4pm), which suggests that greater supervision - as other studies have proved - could save many more lives. Already, a crèche system (called ‘Anchal’) is rolling out across Barisal, with a plan to expand SwimSafe lessons for older children.

We’ll also be taking the findings from focus groups to target other high-risk groups, including people who work on the water. 

Using existing data to understand drowning

In Tanzania we’re exploring cost-effective ways to compile existing data on drowning held by different organisations.

We know that good data is vital to understand and tackle a country’s drowning problem, but how does that work in areas with limited resources, reporting and data-sharing? This is a particular problem in Sub-Saharan Africa, where health information systems are weak, but drowning rates are thought to be high.

Children playing on the beach at low tide in Zanzibar

Photo: RNLI/Aram Atkinson

Children playing on the beach at low tide in Zanzibar.

We’ve been working with the Ifakara Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to understand what drowning data is routinely collected by other organisations. This can then inform plans for drowning prevention.

We’re testing the practicalities of using secondary data (collected by organisations other than the RNLI) to map the patterns, causes and effects of drowning. Interventions can then be targeted more effectively and have a greater impact.

If successful in Tanzania, we want to create a framework that other countries can use.

Calculating the cost of drowning

Research can also help make a case to governments, decision-makers and even businesses to make drowning prevention a priority. In a world of competing development issues, each with demands for attention and money, a statistically convincing case can make all the difference.

When someone drowns, besides the personal tragedy a country loses a citizen and a contributor to society. All the other health services they have received (such as vaccinations or safe delivery at birth) are wasted.

In 2015 we conducted the RNLI’s first research into the economic impact of drowning, and the first that we are aware of in global literature.

Discover more


Project Bhasa has received funding from:

  • The Whitewater Charitable Trust

Our international vision is of a world in which no-one should drown. Could you help us towards this vision?

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