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Water is everywhere in Bangladesh. The fatal drowning rate is estimated to be five times higher than in other lower middle-income countries.

The problem is vast, but researchers, rescuers and educators are leading the fight to make water safety a priority.

Drowning in Bangladesh

Every day in Bangladesh 40 children die from drowning, it’s a leading killer of children in the country and the biggest killer of 1-4 year olds. The country has 700 rivers and around 5,000 miles of inland waterways, with the vast majority of land less than 10 metres above sea level. These extensive bodies of water mean children are always only steps away from danger - most drownings occur within 20 metres of the home.

‘If there had just been someone at home that day, she could have been looked after’

Rowshanara with her grandson, holding a photo of her granddaughter Shohagi who drowned outsideher home in Barisal

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

Rowshanara holds a photo of her granddaughter Shohagi

Rowshanara looked after her granddaughter Shohagi (2) in Barisal, so that her daughter could work in a factory in Dhaka. Shohagi drowned in the pond outside her home, when Rowshanara was called away to work with her livestock.

‘In the rainy season, water surrounds us here on four sides. What can I say about this sadness? Shohagi used to talk in such a sweet way, everyone in this neighbourhood loved her. If someone came to the house to visit and the tea was boiling, she would try to find the plates and the cups.

‘I understand why it happened. I’m just one person. When I was all alone, I used to say to myself, how will I look after the child? If there had just been someone at home that day, she could have stayed with them and been looked after. I have to work to live, but if I hadn’t gone to work that day she would have survived. I can’t accept it.’

RNLI partners in Bangladesh

  • CIPRB logo
    Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB)

    CIPRB was founded in February 2005, with the vision of a safe and injury-free community in low-income and developing nations. They conduct research, test interventions and run programmes across Bangladesh, and contribute to global research on injury rates, including drowning and prevention. This, together with their community network and respected position in the public health field, makes them a strong partner for tackling a nationwide epidemic.

    CIPRB website

The difference we’re making together

The problem in Bangladesh can seem overwhelming, but the solutions are proving to be simple and relatively low cost – it costs less than £100 to deliver a water safety class to 30 children.

Starting as a lifeguarding programme in 2012, the CIPRB has expanded SeaSafe into a range of activities that keep locals and visitors to Cox’s Bazar safe.

Grown from the vibrant local surf club culture, 25 lifeguards watch over 3 beaches - and take a keen interest in community education. Many of the team deliver talks to schools and other groups, and there is a training programme underway to qualify more SeaSafe staff to teach water safety messages.

A Sea Safe lifeguard patrolling the beach at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Photo: Mike Lavis

SeaSafe lifeguards are making their local beaches and communities safer

‘Cox’s Bazar has one of the longest beaches, more than 120km of unbroken sands. There are many rip currents, and people like to use inflatables to float and play. This is one of the main causes of drowning here.

‘When I was young I had the wrong information about the sea. They told me that the sea is safer when it’s high tide, risky when it’s low tide. This is genuinely what everyone thinks!

‘Lots of my friends, lots from my community have drowned. But the difference from when SeaSafe started its journey is that no-one has died in the lifeguard area. That’s the biggest achievement so far, for us.’

Saving and changing lives

In 2017, the lifeguards rescued 29 people from the sea at Cox’s Bazar, and took almost a quarter of a million preventative actions (such as moving the flagged swimming area or making safety announcements) to keep many more safe. Four teachers are now running SwimSafe sessions, and taught almost 2,000 children swim survival skills in 2017. Across 81 local schools, 25,000 children learned water safety messages.

A lifeguard holding up a flag in a school water safety lesson in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI / Rob Goodlad

SeaSafe lifeguards also give water safety lessons to schoolchildren in Cox’s Bazaar

There is still more for this growing team to do. During festivals and holidays, tens of thousands of people fill the beach and there are still drownings outside the flagged patrol areas. The education programme will help to shift people’s understanding of the water, and by engaging with local government and businesses (such as beachside hotels), SeaSafe are exploring ways to raise awareness of the lifeguard service and find sustainable funding sources once RNLI support concludes.

Women and children in an anchal crèche in Barisal, Bangladesh

Photo: CIPRB/Bhasa

The anchal (crèche) system keeps children supervised and safe during the day

We’ve joined forces with the CIPRB and The George Institute for Global Health to build an in-depth picture of the drowning problem in Barisal, one of the worst affected regions in Bangladesh.

The project is now rolling out more SwimSafe lessons and an ‘anchal’ (crèche) system to more communities across Barisal. Dr Kamran Ul Baset from CIPRB explains:

'They have fun, play, sing rhymes. The system puts them in a safe environment, and parents are very happy to send them because they are getting some pre-school preparation, while addressing the safety issue. If we can make a safe environment for children during these hours, we will reduce a huge number of drownings.'

 Visit our international research section to see how the surveys were carried out.

We’ve been working with BFSCD to help strengthen their response to large-scale floods. In 2017, we trained 4 new assessor-trainers within the organisation, who in turn trained 60 firefighters in flood rescue skills. In 2018 the number of trainer-assessors has risen to 16, and they plan to teach flood skills to a further 120 firefighters this year.

A flood rescue training session on a river in Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI/Robin Goodlad

Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence members learning swift water rescue skills

The ultimate aim is for BFSCD to be fully self-sustaining in terms of flood rescue training and development. See how they’ve helped create an intervention that can be used by similar organisations in future, in the flood rescue section.

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

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14,000 children drown every year

353 people saved by SeaSafe lifeguards between 2015 and 2021

30,002 children learned survival swimming between 2017 and 2019