Today is the first World Drowning Prevention Day. Declared through the April 2021 United Nations General Assembly Resolution, the aim is to build global advocacy for drowning prevention.
The most effective way to prevent drowning accidents is by knowing how to swim. As we know, swimming is a great low impact exercise that builds endurance, muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. It provides an all-over body workout, and helps one maintain a healthy weight, healthy heart and lungs.
But swimming is more than just a sport—it is a vital life saving skill that every person should know. Therefore it is important that we recognize water safety skills as an essential part of learning how to swim.
We often come across comments like, “If I know swimming, I will be safe in any water”, or “If I know swimming I can save anyone from drowning”.
However, none of these are true. A research study in the Malabar region has found that those who know swimming have a higher risk of drowning compared to those who don’t. Surprised?
Here are some reasons why swimmers may find themselves at greater risk of drowning if they do not have adequate water safety knowledge and skills:
Poor understanding of aquatic environments
Swimming in a swimming pool is different from swimming in open water. In addition, climate change triggered extreme weather is bringing us face to face with threatening interactions with water.
The confidence level for a swimmer will differ in different conditions. In a pool, in a swimsuit, on firm ground - the swimmer may have a certain level of comfort. However, in open water one might have to deal with water currents, varying topography, clarity of water, marine life, exhaustion, panic attacks, which create stress and can result in drowning accidents.
Films popularize parties by the pool where young people dunk each other into the swimming pool. This is extremely risky behavior, even for swimmers. One should not enter water under the influence of alcohol. Also, attires like jeans, shoes etc can be cumbersome and increase the risk of accidents.
Lack of awareness about drowning
Adults in their ignorance may also expose children to drowning risks. For example adults may be keen to showcase a child’s newly acquired swimming skills, during recreational outings like a picnic, or in wrong water conditions. They do not realize that the child’s confidence level differs in different conditions. In open water, under no direct supervision, without adequate training, with the challenges of water currents, exhaustion etc., panic may set in.
Untrained in rescue skills
Trying to save someone from drowning can expose one to similar risks themselves. Rescue should be attempted only by those who have been trained in safety and survival. Instead we find anyone who thinks they know how to swim, jump into the water and scramble to provide support. The victim, who is gasping for life, can incapacitate even a strong swimmer. So, acting in panic and without rational thinking, can make situations worse instead of better.
Overlooking threats of shallow water
The common perception is that shallow water is safer than deeper water. But in reality, more accidents happen in shallow water. Shallow water gives a false sense of security, building the confidence of even non swimmers to engage in water and get adventurous. Observation and supervision becomes complacent. Shallow water can be visually deceptive, and can incite people to do risky activities like jump with their heads first, triggering accidents.
Overconfidence of abilities
Our approach to “I know how to swim” is in black or white: one either knows how to swim or does not know how to swim. Many believe that swimming is like learning to cycle - a skill that you cannot forget. But that is not true. Swimming demands periodical evaluation of your ability to swim. You might have learnt to swim at 7 years, but you may not have that skill at 27.
Physiological changes affect a swimmer’s ability to swim. Younger children float easily as their hands and legs are smaller than their torso. But as they grow, their muscles increase, their torso becomes smaller as compared to their hands and feet and these change the balance they have in water - impacting their ability to swim. Teens and young adults are particularly vulnerable to be taken by surprise at their lack of ability and capacity, if they have not been practicing over the years.
Very short learning period
Swim classes are a one-off summer vacation exercise, where students go to crash courses at swim camps. In other countries, children are encouraged to be part of a swim school for many years, and not just a season. This limited duration of engagement in the water affects their ability to swim.
Lack of practice
Kids stop engaging with water after they have completed their ‘course’. The lack of practice makes them weak swimmers. Children should be encouraged to swim at least once a week throughout the year. Otherwise it is a disconnected reality for them, as to how they think they can swim, and how they actually perform in water.
Our advice to stay safe: Do not overestimate one’s capability to swim. Respect swimming as a life skill and continue to engage with water throughout your life. We don't drown because we can't ‘swim’. We drown because we can't breathe. Therefore, it is important that we understand aquatic education in all environments, depths and circumstances.
Everyone of us has the opportunity to learn swimming and water safety skills to protect ourselves. “Anyone can drown. No one should,” is the key message from WHO for World Drowning Prevention Day. Let us commit ourselves to the same, so that no child or adult loses their life to drowning.
TIPS TO STAY SAFE
When enjoying the pool or river, remember to:
Learn swimming and water safety skills in various aquatic environments
Never swim alone. Always swim with a buddy.
Wear a life jacket
Avoid consuming alcohol
Learn how to rescue and save a life. Get trained in water safety and survival skills, CPR etc.
Children under 8 years should be accompanied and supervised by an adult when they enter any water body, from swimming pools to village ponds.
Munazza Habibulla is the CEO of Swimming Matters, a Bengaluru-based organization that aims to improve participation and excellence in Indian swimming.