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Swim survival and water safety

Learning to swim is a rite of passage enjoyed by many children in developed countries, particularly those in coastal communities. Children in low-and middle-income countries may miss out on this lifesaving learning.

Some children learn in ponds or the ocean with the help of their friends, family or even by themselves. But this can put them in even more danger.

Children swimming in a river on Zanzibar

Photo: RNLI / Mike Lavis

As one of its 10 actions to prevent drowning, the WHO recommends that all school-age children should learn basic swimming, water safety and safe rescue skills.

The RNLI is currently involved in two major interventions that explore the best ways to do this, with at least 200,000 children learning water safety messages in 2017 alone:


We’ve been working with the Panje Project in Zanzibar, and the Felix Foundation in Ghana, to create a course of swimming survival lessons for low-resource areas, both in the classroom and on the water.

Water safety education

A classroom-based lesson that delivers 10 water safety messages. The interactive lessons last about an hour, and use a variety of techniques including picture cards, song and dance.  

A teacher in Ghana holding up a water safety message sign

Photo: RNLI

The classroom section of Aquatic Survival teaches 10 memorable water safety messages

Survival swimming skills

This teaches older children basic swimming skills so they can swim to safety if they fall into water, and safe rescue skills so that they can help someone in difficulty without putting themselves in danger.
Thanks to our partners in Ghana and Zanzibar, the Aquatic Survival manual is now available for any similar organisation with limited resources, to help protect children who live near water.

‘It’s helping dispel the myth that drowning is fate’

Panje Project board volunteer Khadija Ahmed

Photo: Marcus Schlossman

Khadija Ahmed volunteers on the Panje Project’s board:

‘Panje is the first ever effort to create awareness of the importance of being safe around the water. It’s helping dispel the often-used myth that drowning is something that happens, and it’s fate.

‘There are many incidences of drowning every year. We don’t know exactly the count, but we know that children are drowning during the flooding season, and when they go out to play in the ocean.

‘Working so closely with the community, we’re composed of people who are from that community, and so we give the message: “trust us!”’

In Bangladesh, children are highly exposed to open water in their daily lives - ponds, ditches, rivers lakes and the sea claim 18,000 young lives every year.

It doesn’t have to be this way - the solutions are simple and relatively cheap to run. A 2012 study found that Swim Safe lessons reduced a child’s likelihood of drowning by 93%, lessons which at the time cost just $14 per child.
Children learning to swim with SwimSafe

Photo: RNLI

With SwimSafe children learn how to swim in a safe, controlled environment.

Simple bamboo structures convert local ponds into reassuring places to learn, while games and songs help keep those first, tentative lengths fun and memorable.

Lessons have been happening across Bangladesh since 2006, and the RNLI is now supporting SwimSafe in Cox’s Bazar. With the absence of suitable ponds we’ve helped build a portable pool so that children living in a seaside city have a safe place to learn. Here almost 2,000 children have already learned to swim, and a further 1,000 children will learn each coming year.

‘Simple swim skills can make all the difference’

Jeny teaching a SwimSafe lesson in a temporary pool in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Jeny was the first female SwimSafe teacher in Cox’s Bazar, and also works as a SeaSafe lifeguard:

‘Here in Bangladesh there are many ponds, canals, rivers and of course, the sea. You can’t keep children away from the water. It’s very important that children know how to swim, so that they feel at ease in the water, and so they can rescue themselves if they get into trouble.

‘In small ways, I believe we are making real change here. Until now, the water surrounding us has been a source of life and death. Simple swim skills can make all the difference.’

(SwimSafe is a programme developed by the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research - Bangladesh, The Alliance for Safe Children, Royal Lifesaving Society - Australia and UNICEF.  Swim Safe in the UK is a separate project run by the RNLI and Swim England, which also aims to help children build confidence and skills in open water.)

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

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