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2023 Drowning Prevention Report: A groundbreaking approach

In a pivotal move towards enhancing water safety, Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) announces the release of the refocused 2023 Drowning Prevention Report. This report marks a significant step forward in the nation’s approach to drowning prevention, utilising a cutting-edge approach, spearheaded by world-leading data science, and leveraging WSNZ’s pioneering drowning database, Drownbase™.

This comprehensive approach explores not only information gathered in 2023, but analyses over 40 years of fatal and non-fatal drowning data, hospitalisation events, ACC injury records, and New Zealand Search and Rescue incident statistics.

The 2023 report is not simply the gathering of statistics but a dynamic, ongoing project that will release additional findings throughout the year. A critical focus of this year’s report is the identification of “Black Spot” drowning locations, a key to unlocking targeted and effective prevention strategies.

The 2023 Drowning Prevention Report -A Snapshot

The 2023 Drowning Prevention Report reveals a concerning trend: 90 preventable drownings, an 11% increase over the 10-year average of 82 and only slightly lower than the 94 drownings in 2022. Males represent a staggering 83% of these incidents, and 56% of the victims were over the age of 45. Alarmingly, the under-5 age group saw a spike in drownings, with 8 fatalities, surpassing the 10-year average of 5.

Half of the drownings occurred due to unintentional slips and falls (45), a significant rise from the 10-year average of 27. Swimming or ‘playing in the water’ was responsible for 18 preventable drownings, constituting 20% of the total. The most challenging environments were rivers (25), coast (24), pools (11), and offshore areas (11).

Notably, drownings involving powered craft decreased to 8, a substantial reduction from the 10-year average of 17 and a significant drop from 21 in 2022. This suggests that safety campaigns, such as Coastguard NZ and WSNZ’s “Just Wear It” lifejacket initiative, and Maritime NZ’s Kia Mataara are making an impact.

Auckland experienced a concerning surge with 27 preventable drownings, surpassing both the 2022 figure of 17 and the 10-year average of 16.

“Auckland’s large population, increased participation in water activities, and warmer climate contribute to this number. But it’s now time to rethink how we address Aucklander’s water safety crisis. Population growth does not explain this disturbing trend.” says WSNZ Chief Executive, Daniel Gerrard.

Conversely, Northland shows a positive result, with drownings decreasing to 5 from 18 in 2022, significantly below the 10-year average of 11. “This improvement highlights the potential of targeted interventions and community engagement in drowning prevention”. Gerrard adds, “While it’s too early to declare a trend, the decline in Northland is encouraging and points to the importance of region-specific approaches to water safety.”

WSNZ Black Spots – A Key Focus for Drowning Prevention

WSNZ is taking a proactive approach to drowning prevention by designating “Black Spots”, akin to road safety counterparts. These are locations identified for their high incident and fatality rates. By spotlighting these areas, tailored preventive measures can be put in place to save lives.

The Black Spot approach, akin to road safety alerts, is underpinned by awareness. With the potential to use mobile notifications and local signs to educate water users about risks in specific areas. This awareness could lead to safer practices such as encouraging fishing or diving with a mate, wearing life jackets when fishing off the rocks, avoiding alcohol, and understanding local water and weather conditions.

In New Zealand, with its extensive coastline, lakes, and rivers, addressing high-risk areas is crucial for water safety. Identifying and mitigating risks in these Black Spots will be a cornerstone of the country’s water safety activity. This approach empowers local communities, ensures efficient resource allocation, and most importantly, prevents drowning incidents.

The analysis undertaken has revealed ten WSNZ “Black Spots”. Piha Beach, the most critical, averaged one fatality per year for the last 25 years. Alarmingly, seven Black Spots in the Auckland Region alone have accounted for 105 drownings in the past 25 years, representing 5% of New Zealand’s total in just seven localities. Targeting these spots could significantly reduce drowning incidents.

WSNZ CEO Daniel Gerrard further emphasises, “This new insight compels us to rethink our approach to drowning prevention, particularly in high-risk areas like Auckland. We need a concerted effort that goes beyond broad-brush regional methods, to that which taps into community knowledge and focuses on specific interventions tailored to each area’s needs. WSNZ is at the forefront of this new initiative, championing a shift towards more localised, community-driven approaches to water safety.”

The 2023 National Drowning Report is not just a document but a catalyst for change. It underscores the need for a collaborative, data-driven approach to water safety, combining local expertise, community involvement, and innovative actions. As we move forward, WSNZ remains committed to reducing drowning fatalities and promoting a culture of safety around water in New Zealand.


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