The global drowning problem

Drowning kills an estimated 372,000 people worldwide every year. It is a staggering number, yet this global problem isn’t receiving the serious attention it needs. To put this conservative estimate into context, it’s the equivalent of 70% of the global death toll from malnutrition, and 60% of that from malaria.
A child plays by the water in Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI / Mike Lavis

A child plays by water in Bangladesh

More than 9 out of 10 drownings happen in Africa and Asia - the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that drowning rates in sub-Saharan Africa are 10 times higher than in the UK. And in many parts of Asia, drowning is now the leading killer of children over the age of 1. In Bangladesh, for example, 46 children drown every day.

Why do are so many deaths unaccounted for?

This estimate could also be quite low because:

  • People drown in lakes, rivers, ponds and oceans - not hospitals. So formal reporting of these deaths is rare.
  • This estimate doesn’t include deaths from ferry accidents, natural disasters like floods, or the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean - yearly tragedies which kill thousands.

What factors make people more at risk?

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) often don’t have any culture of water safety, let alone any safety provision. Critically, people in LMICs are far more exposed to open water, as they often have to rely on ponds and lakes for daily tasks like washing and bathing. So tragedies often hit frighteningly close to home - in Bangladesh most drownings of children under 5 occur within 20m of where they live.

Children swimming in a river on Zanzibar

Photo: RNLI / Mike Lavis

So what’s being done about it?

Whether it’s 372,000 or a figure much higher, many who work in development - from NGOs to national governments and UN agencies - are largely unaware of these statistics. We think it’s time this changed. We are working in partnership with other lifesaving and development organisations to raise awareness and find strategies that will make a difference.

Interested in looking deeper? Take a look at the research and reports below or find out how we are helping.

Research and reports on global drowning

  • View report
    World Health Organisation website
    WHO Global Report on Drowning
  • View data
    Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation – drowning data by country
    Online stats website
    Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation – drowning data by country
  • View report
    Download RNLI research - estimating the global economic cost of drowning
    Download PDF 2.21 MB
    RNLI research – Estimating the global economic cost of drowning